Friday, 30 October 1998

Hazel Holt: The Cruellest Month (1991)

Edition: Pan, 1993
The Cruellest Month coverReview number: 152

The Cruellest Monthis Holt's second novel to feature Sheila Malory. It is set in Oxford, where she is doing research in the Bodleian. Oxford, where she was a student in the fifties, inspired by Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night. Oxford is a place special to her heart, particularly the Bodleian, where she met her first love. Now it is thirty years later, and she is a widow with a son studying at the university himself. She also has a godson, Tony, who works at the library, the son of her closest friend, with whom she is staying. Just before Sheila's arrival, Tony has had the unpleasant experience of discovering a body in the library - one of his colleagues, apparently killed in an accident with some collapsing shelves.

As he has continued to think about it, Tony has become convinced it was not an accident; various little things like her glasses being left at her desk point that way. In order to help him, Sheila decides to find out the truth. As she does so, she is also forced to confront her own past and the roots of her love for Oxford.

Oxford, as has perhaps been suggested by the plot summary above, plays an extremely important part in this novel. Perhaps this is even more the case than in Gaudy Night, which contains a good deal of background (and which is about three times as long); certain knowledge is taken for granted by Holt. This sounds as though it's a drawback to the reader who hasn't been to Oxford, but I'm not sure that it would be. A knowledge of the city and university is not necessary to unravel the mystery, even if some of the force and interest of the novel is lost.

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