Sherlock Goes Chic: Murder Mystery by Plum Sykes

And India invited me to her shooting party..

There’s no way she would have invited me to that and not wanted me at her funeral..

Welcome to the underworld of Plum Sykes’ Champagne Set in her first “Oxford girl” mystery series, Party Girls Die in Pearls, where Christminister is “more like the Ritz than school” and naughty aristo students are more likely found snogging “behind the Pimm’s tent” than studying Milton.

“Meeting your first few husbands while young and beautiful is imperative,” the “Fresher” protagonist, Ursula Flowerbutton, is admonished. In between fancy frock parties and rowing on the Thames, Ursula, an aspiring journalist turned detective, is caught dead (sorry, had to) in the middle of the ghastly demise of Lady India Brattenbury, the chicest it girl at Oxford.

After a white tie ball ripe for “earl catching,” Ursula discovers India, still in her heirloom tiara and pearls, on a chaise longue in a tutor’s room, her neck slashed with a broken champagne “saucer,” because, well, blue bloods just don’t use flutes. Looking to make a scrappy debut at Cherwell ( the student newspaper) Ursula takes on a Holly Golightly meets Hercule Poirot charm to track down the killer for the paper.

Of course, she has to wade through India’s past, current, and would be lovers like “Wenty,” the Earl of Wychwood (“a hollow cad of a cucumber sandwich”) and unravel the mystery of India’s “illegit,” that’s the not so polite term Lord Brattenbury has for his illegitimate son, and potential heir to the Brattenbury fortune Ursula’s partner in sleuthing is the lone Yank in the bunch-Nancy Feingold, an heiress from New Jersey, dubbed “the lawnmower” for her family’s garden supply business.

Sykes sets her story in the eighties, providing a rich nostalgia for the decade. “Ivana Trump is my style icon,” Nancy declares when she shows up to India’s funeral with her hair “fluffed into the puffiest bun Ursula had ever seen.” “Please do not spend too much time in the library studying, “advises Ursula’s trusted grandmother, “or you will turn into one of those bluestockings. Look at what’s happened to that poor woman Mrs. Thatcher.”

Writing about it girls and Oxford girls comes naturally to Sykes who read modern history at Worcester College. She later became an editor at American Vogue, winning over fellow Brit Anna Wintour, before publishing bestsellers Bergdorf Blondes and The Debutante Divorcee. Her grandfather, Christopher Sykes, was Evelyn Waugh’s official biographer, but fortunately for her loyal readers, she’s flouted family tradition for the far more entertaining genre of chick lit.

Party Girls is perfect for the light-hearted anglophile or for anyone who studied at Oxford, or wishes they had. Moonlit walks across The Great Quad, “Sloanes” in pleated skirts, intrigues in the Monks’ Undercroft at Magdalen College, cozy French bistros on Turl Street. Sykes takes you to her Oxford, a college experience to die for.

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