For those lucky enough to read Olga Wojtas’ 2018 novel Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar there are few, if any, novels more eagerly awaited this year than Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace, the second in her series of comedic crime novels (both published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband).
The first ‘Miss Blaine’s Prefect…’ book introduced us to time-travelling librarian, and Marcia Blaine School For Girls alumna, Shona McMonagle who found herself recruited by none other than Marcia Blaine herself, and then unexpectedly transported from her day-job in Morningside Library to solve crime in 19th century Russia. Sounds far-fetched? Strap yourself in – you ain’t read nothing yet.
This time around we are straight in to the action with Shona now more accustomed to her dual roles. However, nothing could possibly prepare her for her next assignment. Actually, that’s not true. Her Marcia Blaine schooling, and her love of books, turn out to be exactly what she needs as she faces suspicion and confusion in late-19th century France, as well as the ‘Vampire Menace’ of the title. Rarely has being carefully taught been so advantageous.
Shona arrives in the small-town of Sans-Soleil where something is afoot. She is welcomed by the mayor and a selection of rather peculiar local dignitaries, and quickly finds her first mystery – that of a local policeman who may or may not be dead. His vivacious wife/widow Madeleine firmly believes the latter, and she eventually becomes an unlikely ally as Shona tries to discover the true nature of her mission. Before long she encounters a Dracula who is more familiar with the Doric than you might expect, but Shona knows better than most that you shouldn’t believe everything you read, in fact you should actively question it.
Shona McMonagle’s contempt for Muriel Spark’s much-loved novel The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, (or “That Book” as she thinks of it), is one of her defining features, believing it to have given people the wrong impression of her alma mater, the school in which Spark had Jean Brodie teach. So when Shona discovers that Dracula harbours similar feelings for the Bram Stoker novel that brought him infamy, and which he sees as being scurrilous, sensationalist, and verging on the sleazy, she not only sympathises but understands. It turns out Dracula is altogether more palatable than Stoker portrayed, and less likely to prize that quality in others.
To give away further plot would be to lessen the pleasure for readers, suffice to say that Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace is a marvelous romp through history, myth, and legend, which delights by playing with all of these. Shona’s education and 21st century knowledge allows her to be one or more steps ahead of most of the people she meets, and means she is perfectly placed to solve the mysteries of Sans-Soleil. She is part Sherlock, part Doctor Who, and, I’m guessing, a lot of Olga Wojtas.
Like Shona, Wojtas uses her own knowledge to full effect to entertain, inform, and educate – I think in that order, at least that’s how I read it. There are many literary and cultural references to enjoy and absorb, but what stands out is Wojtas’ love of language and joie d’écrire. It’s rare to read a book where the writer appears to have enjoyed writing it as much, if not more, as you do reading it.
The sense of humour is often impish and wry, especially when Shona comments on other parts of Scotland, playing with many regional stereotypes and clichés. Glaswegians favour the mysterious beverage, ‘Electric Soup’, Aberdonians are fond of their shortbread, rowies, and ‘doos’, and poor Airdrie suffers in-particular. All of this exposes Shona’s deep-rooted suspicion of anything and anyone not from Edinburgh, and Morningside at that, even though she is quite aware of the similar myths about her own neighbourhood which also endure.
With Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace it becomes clear, if it wasn’t already, that Olga Wojtas is a writer to treasure. She reminds us that reading is to be enjoyed, and when the writing is as good as this it can be rip-roaring, genuinely thrilling, and laugh-out-loud funny. If you don’t agree then I suggest you take a long hard look in the mirror – it may be you’re not as alive as you thought you were.