Art & Culture

Why I adore Plum Sykes’s Oxford girls

Kaveree Bamzai
Kaveree BamzaiJun 12, 2017 | 15:26

Why I adore Plum Sykes’s Oxford girls

Forgive the alliteration of the title, Party Girls Die in Pearls. Forgive too the obsession, carried on from Bergdorf Blondes, with the Kennedys and their hair. Focus instead on the fun.

Ursula Flowerbutton and her new found friend Nancy Feingold, called Lawnmower because of her parents’ gardening tools empire back in New Jersey, are two gorgeous Freshettes at Oxford.

In between chasing deadlines (for Ursula) and the next duke (for Nancy), they stumble upon clues to the murder of a fellow Freshette, part of the Champagne Set of privileged children who row for sport and hunt for pleasure.


It’s the beginning of a new mystery series for Plum Sykes, the sharp columnist who occasionally writes for Vogue in between living the picture perfect Cotswolds life with a husband and two children.

Flowerbutton, a prim but playful orphan brought up by two grandmothers (Vain Granny who has an endless supply of vintage ballroom dresses and Plain Granny who runs the Seldom Seen Farm), is a sometime History scholar though she never manages to get much work done, and a sometime reporter for Cherwell, the legendary student newspaper.

She manages to unveil the murderer of Lady India Brattenbury, the most beautiful and brainiest of the Freshettes who was to play the female Hamlet and who was in a relationship with Wenty, otherwise known as Wentworth Wychwood. I kid you not. Everyone sounds as if they’re straight out of Evelyn Waugh novels and Oscar Wilde plays.

Much of the book is fairly tripping over itself with titles and rituals which take you inside the secret world of Oxford undergraduates. The scouts who clean the rooms (which naturally have practically no heating), the professors who are not above sleeping with their students, and librarians who make research particularly difficult for those running out of time to submit their essays.


Think Agatha Christie meets Nancy Drew and dive in. 

It’s all terribly posh, and please by all means regard this book as a serious anthropological exercise, especially with its almost all-male clubs and its Hildebeest conquests (as in inhabitants of the all female hall St Hilda’s). This is a campus free of gender issues, set in the 1980s so that there are no allegations of sexual harassment by tutors/date rape culture/excessive drink/drug-use. Set in the 1980s in the era of Dallas and Dynasty, helpfully supplied with footnotes, it’s delightful and can be easily dismissed as anachronistic (though given the reactions to Theresa May’s premiership perhaps sexism isn’t such a dated attitude after all among the toffs).

There is a body, with a cleanly slit throat (still wearing the pearls of the book title). There are several suspects (the dishy tutor in whose rooms the body was found), the boyfriend (whose towel is found up the chimney), the best friend (who happens to be a minor princeling from Austria) and even the girl whose part she stole (who just happens to have slept with her mate’s boyfriend). Terribly complicated? Not really. Just know that everyone seems to be sleeping with, oops sorry shagging, everyone, except perhaps one clergyman’s son and our very virtuous Ursula.


In between, miraculously, some study does get done, even if it is obtuse. Anyone for an essay on the Apocalyptic Vision of the Early Covenanters? So does some sport, under the very azure eyes of Oxford Blue Wenty, he of the cucumber sandwich looks, messy blond hair, faded jeans, cricket sweater, and revolving door girlfriends. There is the college gossip Horatio, always kitted out in kaftans; the girl whom everyone avoids, Claire Potter, always going on about ice-creams and crosswords; the greedy provosts waiting to seize other people’s inheritances to keep the college going; and tycoon Lords who have made their fortune through “mining in Africa”.

There is Marmite. There are tweed jackets and jodhpurs. There are night porters and parties in the scholars’ rooms till late on moonlit nights. There are JCRs and the Great Quad. And there are secret societies and hotness quotients. All done very delicately and very snobbily. Think Agatha Christie meets Nancy Drew and dive in. Swim in a sea of Dom Perignon and top it with an enormous fry-up. It’s that kind of a breezy read. Ms Flowerbutton, bring more on.

Last updated: June 12, 2017 | 15:26
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