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Saturday, 17 January 2015

Review: Arsenic For Tea (A Wells & Wong Mystery) by Robin Stevens


Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy's home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy's glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy's birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn't really about Daisy at all. Naturally, Daisy is furious.

Then one of their party falls seriously, mysteriously ill - and everything points to poison.

With wild storms preventing anyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem - and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy looks suspicious, the Detective Society must do everything they can to reveal the truth . . . no matter the consequences.






I loved Murder Most Unladylike, the first Wells & Wong book by Robin Stevens, so much so that it featured on my list of favourite books of 2014. And I know I'm not alone in this, as I saw it mentioned time after time when other reviewers were posting their Books of 2014 lists. I have been waiting rather impatiently for the release of the sequel, Arsenic for Tea, and it was well worth the wait. Not only is it a great sequel, but it is also a book that is even better then its predecessor.

In this second book Robin Stevens takes her pair of junior sleuths away from the confines Deepdeane, the private boarding school that was the setting for Murder Most Unladylike. Instead, the stage for this brilliant murder mystery story is Fallingford, a country mansion with obligatory sprawling grounds, and the cast a group of people with a plethora of eccentricities and foibles, most of whom just happen to be members of Daisy's family. For Fallingford is the Wells family home, and Daisy and Hazel are there for the holidays. This makes for the perfect setting for our story, and also makes it slightly more accessible than its predecessor in that there is much less use of boarding school slang that some less confident readers may have struggled with in Murder Most Unladylike

Daisy's fourteenth birthday is looming, and members of her family are gathering to celebrate, and what a family they are:
  • Lord Hastings (Daisy's father). Disorganised, forgetful, but full of humour and loves to play practical jokes on his daughter. Much to the disdain of:
  • Lady Hastings (Daisy's mother). Glamorous, snooty, vain, conceited, and possibly adulterous. If she wasn't Daisy's mother we might be wishing her to be the one to fall foul of our mystery murderer.
  • Uncle Felix. Daisy's favourite uncle who just might work for the police in London in some manner or other.
  • Aunt Saskia. Let's just say, don't leave your silverware lying around when Aunt Saskia's in the house ;-)
  • Bertie. Daisy's exceedingly grumpy older brother.
That's the family, but then there are all kinds of others in Fallingford: Miss Alston, the girls' frumpy but enigmatic governess; the various staff of Fallingford; Stephen, Bertie's friend from school; and finally, Denis Curtis, a 'friend' of Lasy Hastings, and a complete and utter cad.

In Arsenic For Tea, Robin Stevens gives us a much deeper look at the character of Daisy Wells. As with most kids who are domineering and brash, there is a very good reason for it, and in Daisy's case it is to hide a girl whose family life is not quite as perfect as she would have anyone on the outside expect. There are obvious tensions between the jocular Lord Hastings and his overbearing and far more glamorous wife, and it is repeatedly suggested that Lady Hastings has a habit of straying from the marital path. However, although this is obvious to all and sundry, Daisy acts as if everything is perfect in her life. In addition, Falligford has obviously seen better days, and therefore funds are not as plentiful as they may have been in the past.

And then there is Hazel, Daisy Wells's very own Watson. Hazel could so easily be the quiet little mouse who acquiesces to every single demand her pushy friend throws at her, but as we saw in Murder Most Unladylike, Hazel is much more than just a hanger on in the Detective Society. It is easy to forget that back in the 1930s, multicultural Britain did not exist as it does today, and casual (and more overt) racism was rife (this being one of the main criticisms of Enid Blyton's work in this modern age), especially amongst the upper classes. Just as Hazel feels like she is fitting in, she is reminded that she is different to those around her. We might expect it from the undiplomatic Aunt Saskia: "there seems to be an ORIENTAL in your hall" she proclaims as she meets Hazel for the first time, but even the lovely Lord Hastings can't help it: "How are you? Who are you? You don't look like Daisy's friends usually do. Are you English?" Somehow Daisy seems to be able to rise above this and there are moments when, observing the tatty state of Fallingford and its relatively meagre compliment of staff, that Hazel realises how much better off her family is, back in Hong Kong.

Arsenic For Tea can be read as a standalone mystery but I would implore you to start with Murder Most Unladylike if for some unfathomable reason you or your children have not yet stumbled across the Wells and Wong Mysteries, as there are several mentions of the previous mystery in this book (although not enough to spoil the plot of MMU). We are in for a real treat this year, as there is another Wells & Wong Mystery scheduled to be published in July of this year. Titled First Class Murder, it's only blimmin' set on the ORIENT EXPRESS! I can't wait!

Arsenic For Tea is due to be published on 29th January and my thanks go to the wonderful Harriet Venn at Random House for sending me a copy to read. You can read more about Robin Stevens and her books at http://robin-stevens.co.uk/

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