New British Whodunit: Party Girls Die in Pearls

A must-read book for summer?

Set in Oxford (home to more murders per capita than any other city on the planet, it seems) in 1985, a student and wealthy heiress is found with her throat cut in the rooms of a college tutor. Suspects abound. 

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At the heart of the investigation, and seemingly the only person truly interested in solving this murder, is Ursula Flowerbutton, a Fresher (or first-year student) newly arrived from farm country, where she was raised by her two grannies, who sent her off with a number of sensible kilts, a tweed coat, and a few of “vain granny’s” ancient ball gowns. Given that attending Oxford in 1985 apparently consisted primarily of attending countless social engagements, this doesn’t bode well for Ursula.

Fortunately, just down the hall lives American Fresher, Nancy Feingold, with her endless supply of clothing in all the latest fashions. Author Plum Sykes, a fashion editor, as well as novelist, describes each character’s (and there are lots of them) outfits in excruciating detail, making it feel at times as if they (and we) are attending a costume ball. The two girls become fast friends immediately.

Ursula, an aspiring journalist, finds the dead body, and manages to fend off the sexual advances of the school paper’s senior editor long enough to get the assignment to cover the investigation. Like any good literary sleuth, she has moxie and manages to worm her way into the homes and offices of persons of interest, of which there are no shortage. Ursula manages to elicit numerous telling admissions, most of which turn out to be lies, but which do thicken the broth and even add a bit a flavor. Ursula’s primary reliance on hearsay and a few convenient acts of God, are what keep the story operating at the level of farce rather than mystery. That, and the fact that she is a teen and neither journalist nor detective.

There is a hint of romance for Ursula, which will likely be developed in future books. (This being the first in a new series.) Nancy has her eyes open for a man with a title. No shortage of those at Oxford.

Ursula and Nancy do have an academic assignment to complete, which takes a worrisome back seat to the balls, sherry parties, Fresher’s Drinks, opening jaunts, parties with the Perquisitors, and other drunken debauches within the halls of the college. Sykes, an Oxford graduate herself, provides a running tutorial on the place in footnotes throughout the book.

In the end, Ursula and Nancy solve the mystery, Ursula gets her article written, (printed in the back of the book, handily supplying readers with a summary of whodunit and why, in case you get lost among the myriad of suspects and many discarded theories) and the girls complete their assignments.

Party Girls Die in Pearls does not claim to be is a literary mystery. Sykes uses adverbs excessively and sometimes redundantly as in, “What?” shrieked Nancy melodramatically.” Her characters gaze “Byronically,” regard “broodingly,” smile “cheekily” or sometimes “gaily,” stare “angrily,” and so forth. And there’s this revelatory line of dialogue, “Hello. Right. Yup. Er. Well…”

It does, however, claim to be the “must-read book of the summer.” That might just depend on how many books you plan to read and what you hope to get from them.

Party Girls Die in Pearls is available at the Norwich Bookstore and wherever books are sold.

Katharine Britton is the author of three novels, Her Sister's Shadow, Little Island, and Vanishing Time.



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