(Bettany Press e-book 2007)
Amongst my childhood reading were stories of boarding school life, particularly that of the Chalet School of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (whose readers will instantly recognise the derivation of the book’s title). There’s a very strong community of fans of ‘Girls Own’ stories and books, and discussion boards, societies and conferences devoted to these works. Liz Filleul’s book is primarily a detective novel set amongst a group of aficionados of Girls Own fiction.
Sally is an Australian, who edits a magazine called Australian Collector, and has managed to attend a conference on girls’ school stories at Cotterford Manor while also visiting friends she hasn’t seen for some years since she emigrated*. She has arranged to interview a number of people at the conference for the magazine, including Valerie Teague, a book-dealer who is also known as an abrasive and rather dislikeable woman. Sally encounters a young woman called Margaret at the local station, whose behaviour later seems somewhat suspicious, who is also heading for the conference.
During the conference, Valerie, who had managed to upset several people, falls ill, and is rushed to hospital; later dying. When the police arrive to interview fellow attendees, it’s fairly plain that they’re not taking the conference and its subject very seriously, annoying nearly everyone involved. Afterwards, Sally goes on to London to stay with her university friend, Rhian, a journalist, who is more intrigued by Valerie’s death than Sally is: with Rhian’s eager encouragement, Sally sets out to find out what happened.
This novel is entertaining and often amusing, though there is a lot of info-dumping in the first chapter or so, explaining why Sally is in England, her background, and reasons for attending, not to mention information about the collecting world. While of interest to those of a collecting bent, perhaps (certain figures in the Girls Own world may be paralleled in the novel, though the characters portrayed aren’t the same as their real-life equivalents), I don’t think it adds much to the plot itself. The characters aren’t particularly well-developed: Valerie, for example, comes across as so utterly unpleasant that you wonder why anyone would go to her funeral at all, and because of the conference setting, there are rather too many characters, most of which aren’t sufficiently differentiated.
The plot, I think, isn’t particularly tightly constructed, and there are certain details (such as Sally’s use of public transport across London) which smack of being inserted due to research rather than because they add anything to the story – perhaps it’s because the author is herself not a resident of London and thus more concerned with how her characters get around! Some of the revelations seem inspired by guesswork, and one detail about Bridget’s life which she inadvertently reveals is not noticed by the other characters, nor, apparently, by the narrative voice.
With the background of this type of collecting, almost all the characters are women, which is unusual and refreshing, since they undertake their work and their detection almost entirely without male aid or advice. Women’s friendships, particularly Sally’s and Rhian’s, and the conference organiser Miriam’s friendship with her ill business partner, Jessica, are nicely drawn and realistic.
I think this book could have done with being more closely edited, but this seems to be a problem with many minor publishing houses (and often major publishers as well) who operate on a semi-professional basis. The prose is workmanlike, but not descriptive, and the narrative is told in a third-person style focussed solely on Sally’s point of view.
*Judging by the author biography on the Bettany Press website, Sally’s experiences and life seem to mirror that of the author.