80s culture, Oxford undergrad high society, and murder: Party Girls Die in Pearls by Plum Sykes
Party Girls Die in Pearls is a fun murder mystery set amongst the parties, scandals, and scrapes of Oxford students in the 1980s. Ursula Flowerbutton is a middle-class girl from the countryside, brought up by her two grannies and looking forward to studying History and eating cucumber sandwiches when she goes to Oxford. However, her desire to get involved with the Cherwell, an Oxford student newspaper, becomes a reality when after an unexpected party invite, she comes across a dead body on her way to a tutorial. Suddenly, Ursula must spend her first week in Oxford on the trail of a murderer, assisted by her new American friend, and try to unravel all the love affairs, college jealousies, and high society secrets that she finds in her way.
Sykes’ narrative is a classic murder mystery, but the insight into the upper-class world of a certain subsection of Oxford students is what adds to the enjoyment, with witty and sometimes biting comments and descriptions giving a vivid picture of the world in which Ursula finds herself. Explanations of elements of slang amongst the rich and of Oxford traditions may seem a little odd to some, but it draws attention to the period nature of the setting whilst also holding up elements to ridicule. The characters are quite memorable, either in their poshness or eccentricity, and the style is light and straightforward, making it an easy read to devour in an afternoon.
The novel is full of references to both works involving Oxford (a footnote calls the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited the Downton Abbey of the 1980s except everyone was secretly gay) and 80s pop culture, with films and famous songs mentioned amongst the elite world. Like Starter For 10 and Stranger Things, Party Girls Die in Pearls mixes a genre story with a distinctive 1980s setting that will appeal to those who lived it and those who wish they could recreate the aesthetic of the time. Anyone who went to Oxford will also recognise details in the novel, many unchanged since the 80s.