It’s 1985 and Nancy Drew is surrounded by the cast of Clueless.
It’s Ursula Flowerbutton’s first day at Oxford where she is about to start her journey as an undergraduate among the rich and elite. Ursula is a middle class girl in the midst of, not just the super wealthy, but also, the royals (or their distant relatives). But she might as well be Nancy Drew (a clever, prim and proper virgin) thrown in with Cher Horowitz’s crowd in 1985.
The book, Party Girls Die in Pearls, starts with Ursula’s first day on campus. She is excited to make a new friend on her first day in the form of glamorous American freshman, Nancy Feingold – someone who has a limitlessly fashionable wardrobe, a mouth with no stop button, and a flood of invites for all the parties that matter. Ursula is okay with not being invited because her plan is to immerse herself in her studies and try her journalism skills at the famous student paper, Cherwell.
But things don’t go as planned when Ursula discovers the body of the school’s “It” girl, Lady India Brattenbury, inside her tutor’s place – throat sliced while still in last night’s party dress. Although Ursula has read all the Agatha Christie novels, she’s not prepared to deal with the mystery she’s gotten herself into. The problem is that the Cherwell editor, Jago, wants her to write the murder piece herself. And in order to write an amazing article, Ursula has to solve the case.
With Nancy’s help, Ursula follows lead after lead to find out who among the wealthy undergrads killed their Queen Bee. Nancy is a ‘sidekick’ who is as colourful and helpful as the protagonist herself, and her quest to find herself a man with royal blood is as hilarious as her deductive skills are impressive.
Party Girls Die in Pearls is Plum Sykes’ third novel and the first book in the Oxford Girl Mystery series. It throws you into the world of shoulder pads and hair teased so high the bottles of hairsprays used were responsible for the hole in the ozone layer. The protagonist experiences first hand just how affluent–with their exclusive black tie parties, different ball gowns every night, relationship dramas and affairs to rival that of soap operas–these kids are.
Sykes makes it easy for her readers to follow the 1980s cultural references (given that some readers were probably not yet born then) and the intricacies of life as an aristocrat (because who is an aristocrat these days?) by adding asterisks and explaining them in footnotes.
Being a fashion journalist, Sykes’ experience in the fashion world is immediately discernible. The descriptions of clothes and hairstyles for both men and women popular in the ’80s are described in such vivid detail that it brings back nostalgic memories (or alternatively, conveys just how weird the pieces were for those who have never worn them).
Party Girls Die in Pearls is a fun mystery read, filled with interesting characters in a world that fascinates a lot of readers – the world of the rich and spoiled. You can add this book to your to-read list.
Kristyn M. Levis is a freelance writer, author and photographer based in Sydney. She is currently the managing editor of Her Collective. Her first novel is set to be published this year.