Thursday, 25 February 1999

Antonia Fraser: Oxford Blood (1985)

Edition: Mandarin, 1991
Review number: 216

Jemima Shaw is an investigative TV journalist, who is the heroine of several crime novels by Antonia Fraser. The investigative reporter guise is an excellent one for an amateur detective, for it provides a plausible reason for her to get mixed up in mysterious goings on. However, Fraser avoids the problems that would follow from too much verisimilitude, for Jemima Shaw lacks the large number of researchers to be expected in the team around the star of a programme as important as the one she is supposedly making; she is thus rather more of a loner. (Her programme is, I think, rather like the BBC's Everyman, if slightly more tabloid.)

Two investigations are joined together by Jemima - avoiding the use of unlikely co-incidence on Fraser's part through this manipulation of the plot. An elderly lady in a hospice asks her to visit; a former midwife, she was present at the birth of Lord Saffron, heir to one of the richest inheritances in the country. But what she has to tell Jemima, as an act of contrition, is that she connived at the replacement of a baby which died soon after birth with another, adopted baby boy; Lord Saffron is not really who everyone supposes him to be.

The other is a programme idea which is pretty much forced upon Jemima by the chairman of Megalith Productions, which makes her series. This is to do a profile of rich, young aristocrats, with their golden lifestyle. Prompted by a half-remembered quotation from Cymbeline, he wants it to be called Golden Lads and Girls, ignoring the unpropitious next line about turning to ashes. The title is changed to Golden Kids when someone suggests the original idea may be open to a charge of sexism.

Jemima begins such a programme, deciding to investigate the other matter at the same time by centring it round Lord Saffron, currently an Oxford undergraduate. When his next-door neighbour in college is killed, her investigation takes on a more sombre tone.

Oxford Blood is an extremely well done detective novel, with convincing central characters.

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