Party Girls Die in Pearls by Plum Sykes takes us back to the decadent 1980s in a comic murder mystery set in the tony world of Oxford University.
I'm a thoroughly modern woman, and the idea of going back in time to live in a previous age generally has me aghast. I quite enjoy living in an age of indoor plumbing, climate control, and accessible high-speed Internet, thank you very much. But Plum Sykes’s delightful debut mystery novel has me thinking that perhaps an exception could be made for going back in time to 1980s Oxford, populated as it was by young people who were probably just a bit too clever, too glamorous, and too decadent for their own good. Of course, present-day me is a touch too old for that, but college-aged me would—like Party Girls Die in Pearls’ charming, somewhat sheltered heroine Ursula Flowerbutton—have thrived even as I fretted about having enough party dresses to wear to the seemingly endless social whirl.
Of course, it isn't all parties. The academics are rigorous, the athletics intense, and the clubs and societies are—if you don't mind the grisly pun given how the victim is murdered—cut-throat. Ursula has arrived at Oxford to read history and hopefully join the staff of the Cherwell, the acclaimed student-run newspaper. She knows to expect hard work and giddy parties. She does not know to expect to discover the body of one of the school's most popular students after a debauched night featuring one of said parties.
When her editor Jago finds out, he immediately assigns her to the story, shunting aside more senior writers. Ursula is at first thrilled (if a bit guilt-stricken) at her break, till Jago explains his expectations:
“First off, when you write about the police investigation, get two or three verifications of every fact, every statement. Don't take anything the force says at face value. Having said that, my advice is pretty irrelevant—the police won't tell you anything useful anyway. You're going to have to figure out what happened to [the victim] by yourself.”
“You’re saying I've got to solve the murder?” Ursula said, surprised.
“Well, it would be a pretty boring piece if you didn't, wouldn't it? Ursula, unless you get the scoop and figure out who murdered [the victim], your story gets killed.”
Jago might seem vague on the surface, but underneath the laid-back posturing, the boy was ruthless, she thought to herself.
So, not only does Ursula need to juggle studying with sports and a social life (culminating, she hopes, in her very first boyfriend), she must also find a killer in order to keep her toehold in the fierce pecking order of a newspaper that could well launch her post-graduate career. Fortunately, she has the equally charming American heiress Nancy Feingold, a fellow new student she befriended on their first day, to help her with all of it. The girls navigate the campus and beyond to track down the killer, gaining more of an education than either expected.
Plum Sykes writes the kind of book I just lap up: clever, funny, and with a rich attention to details of place and style. I loved her digressions into the history and geography of Oxford as well as the fabulous descriptions of clothing and mannerisms among the different social sets—such as here where Otto, an older student assigned to show Ursula and Nancy around, is helping them understand some of the exotic specimens they find themselves surrounded by:
“Tiggy! Good hols?” Jubie yelled back.
“Yar. Absolutely schizo,” replied Tiggy. “How was San Trop?”
“Wild,” said Jubie. “Completely sick.”
“Is Bunter up?*” said one of the boys.
“Not sure. Apparently Teddy's arriving tomorrow,” replied another. “He's bringing Ding Dong with him.”
“Yar? Great. I heard India's en route.”
“Who are they?” Nancy asked Otto curiously as they headed along the gravel path on the west side of Great Lawn towards the Gothic Buildings.
“The Yars,” said Otto.
“Yars?” said Nancy. “What are Yars?”
“Oh, sorry, I suppose you've never come across one. Let me explain. They're an easily identifiable English species—they all went to the same posh private schools, they still use their absurd childhood nicknames, and they always say the word ‘yar’ instead of ‘yes’. Hence, ‘Yars.’ ”
The Yars, Otto said, dominated the Oxford scene. They ran the Oxford Union, the magazines, the balls, the dining societies, and the drama clubs. They were Rowing Blues or drug addicts, sometimes both.
Party Girls Die in Pearls is the first in a series that I'm already highly anticipating the rest of. Ursula is a girl after my own heart, and her partnership with Nancy is one of the most delightful friendships in modern sleuthing. And while I may never be able to send my college-aged self through time-and-space to travel back to Oxford in the 1980s, this series promises to perfectly encapsulate the experience for me with every installment, if the wonderful first has been anything to go by.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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