Tuesday 24 October 2017

Dark deeds and jolly Oxford japes

Crime: Party Girls Die in Pearls, Plum Sykes, Bloomsbury, €12.74

Party Girls Die in Pearls
Party Girls Die in Pearls

Margaret Carragher

From Oxford grad to Vogue fashionista to A-list socialite, Plum Sykes's life experiences serve her well in her delicious murder mystery set in Oxford University in the gloriously decadent 1980s, when undergraduates such as David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson whooped it up at the university's elite Bullingdon Club.

It is to these hallowed halls that our heroine, scholarship girl Ursula Flowerbottom, has long aspired and here she rocks up in shabby hand knits to read history and, she hopes, to write for Cherwell, Oxford's venerable student newspaper. How to get in with a publication whose previous contributors include Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and W. H. Auden, Ursula hasn't quite figured out but when she stumbles upon the satin-and-pearls bedecked corpse of fellow student Lady India Brattenbury sprawled on a chaise longue in the rooms of her tutor, the delectable Dr Dave, Ursula lands herself the job of Cherwell crime reporter.

"Even a girl like me - one who's read all 75 Agatha Christies - could never have imagined such a sinister start to her first term," goes Ursula's breathless reportage. "I was expecting books and ball-gowns, not a dead body..."

There follows a jolly hockey sticks romp around Oxford and its environs as Ursula and her fellow fresher, ditzy American heiress Nancy Feingold, set about tracking down whodunit while also managing to secure invitations to all the right parties and score any amount of dinner dates with hugely entitled, multi-barrel-monikered chappies.

Purely as a murder mystery in classic Christie mode, this novel would cut the mustard. Add Sykes's perspicacious take on the uproarious, champagne-fuelled antics of 1980s Oxford - a decade which saw Sykes herself amid its dreaming spires - and what you have is whip-smart satire.

Sykes's first two novels Bergdorf Blondes and The Debutante Divorcee soared up the New York Times bestseller list. Party Girls Die in Pearls is the first in her Oxford Girl Mysteries series. Bring 'em on.

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