Every now and then, I like to look at the first pages of some very good children’s books and analyse just how and why they achieve that goodness. Today’s post is on the wonderful Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens and you can browse some of the previous entries in the First Page series here .
I love Murder Most Unladylike. I am an avowed fan of what Robin Stevens does in her contemporary, classic and delicious school stories. Murder Most Unladylike and the sequels have been of such a standard that I’ve been both frankly envious and madly in love with. These are good, good books and if you do not know them then you should. They are books that tell girls to be what they are and should be and does so in such a wonderfully empowering (and occasionally murderous) manner that they are just lovely.
And so to the first page of Murder Most Unladylike (MMU). It’s a book that actually starts a long while before this page; there are cast lists, a map, and some other lovely little details. I particularly adore how this book uses paratexts (fig 1). What are paratexts I hear you ask? Check out this post on ‘Egg’ by Alex T Smith and you’ll see what I mean.
I’ve come back to MMU recently because I hope to use it in the third chapter of my thesis. I’m looking at representations of childhood and how it ties into space and place. As those of you who know this blog might not be surprised to read, I’m concentrating mainly on school stories. School stories are a fascinating beast because they remain somewhat critically neglected. The big titles, of course, have a presence but work on popular fiction like Malory Towers or St Clare’s or Trebizon remains fascinatingly rare. One of the drivers of that, I suspect, is the great introspection of the genre. It’s a genre which thrives on barriers; children are sent to school. They usually stay there. Even if they run away, they usually end up going back. The school itself is usually something stately or castle like; fortified against the world both through the nature of its building but also through location. To all intents and purposes these stories don’t fit within society, they fit next to it.
They are isolated constructions; a macrocosm. And here’s the thing about this first page; it speaks so knowingly and so smartly within that frame, but also outside of it.
Let’s take it step by step and begin with that first paragraph (fig 2). There’s a great potential for this sort of series to turn into some sort of substandard Daisy Pulls It Off affair. Jolly hockeysticks. Cliches and overwrought writing. As much as I adore Angela Brazil, she doesn’t read well today. But this does, precisely because it both recognises the frame of the schoolgirl story but also the great humour of it. That last line ‘I suspect that the solution to this new case may be more complex” is glorious and so deeply funny. But here’s the thing; it’s not overtly funny to Hazel. I might be wrong here, but I don’t suspect it is. I find this deeply matter-of-fact and rather practical and all the funnier because of it. Hazel’s a rather wonderful character here, showing such a delicious sense of practicality and inescapable logic that you can’t help but fall in love with her. This is the way things are. And it’s just a good job she has a new notepad to record the adventures. (Seriously, what a character..)
There’s a lot of work done in these two paragraphs. The first one does much of the context, but the second one does the heavy lifting that’s specific to this particular narrative. We have Daisy introduced, and Hazel named, and the reference to Sherlock Holmes and Watson made. Then there’s that delicious ‘Daisy says…’ sentence which immediately positions Daisy as the more dominant individual of the two. Isn’t it amazing how two words can do so much work? Daisy’s presence is established before she’s even appeared.
The final sentence of this book “After all I am much too short to be the heroine of this story, and who ever heard of a Chinese Sherlock Holmes?” is spectacular. It both couples with the ‘Daisy says…’ element, whilst also introducing a whole host of elements. The invocation of Hazel’s background is deliberately done; her otherness marked, and noted as something that’s apparently incompatible with this overarching image of Sherlock Holmes and Solving Mysteries. And yet, as we can see from this page and her calm unpacking of The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie, it’s clear that Hazel’s actually pretty awesome.
So just think about that for a moment. One page, and we have a thousand things established. Context. Genre. Humour. Character. Cultural Touchstones. Intent. This is such a well-crafted book and this first page is almost palpable with narrative drive. This sort of thing matters, and Murder Most Unladylike does it so well.