A Marriage Bureau Mystery

The Right Sort of Man      Allison Montclair     (2019)

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In the wake of World War II, women who had taken on substantial roles in the war effort were often expected to walk away from stimulating, remunerative work to become housewives. Recently, a number of nonfiction titles, novels, and films have been exploring the ramifications of this cultural shift. For example, in the PBS series The Bletchley Circle a cast of brilliant (fictional) female codebreakers become freelance detectives, solving murders after the war. On this blog I’ve reviewed several novels treating the issue of women adjusting to wartime and to the post-war economy and society; see links at the end of this post.

In the novel The Right Sort of Man, Iris Sparks can’t reveal her wartime work because of Britain’s Official Secrets Act, but she clearly was a spy for the Allies. The story starts in 1946, and Iris reveals her chops through her contacts in high places, her sharp intellect, and her ability to wield a knife against an aggressor. She has met Gwen Bainbridge, a wealthy widow who was so devastated by the loss of her husband in the war that she was confined for several months to a mental institution and lost custody of her young son. Iris and Gwen decide to become partners in establishing a marriage bureau—Iris to have gainful employment as a single woman, and Gwen to reclaim her place in the world. The services they offer are in demand as Britons return to civilian life and seek the comforts of home and family.

Alas, after only a few months of operation, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau loses one of its female clients to murder, and a man whom the bureau has matched her with is charged with the crime. Iris and Gwen have vetted their clients thoroughly and are convinced that the wrong person has been arrested. To see justice done and save the reputation of their firm, they set out to find the real perpetrator. In the course of their investigation, they run into black market gangs finding ways around Britain’s strict war-related rationing laws, which were not fully phased out until 1954.

The action moves forward and the personalities develop primarily through dialogue, and that dialogue is quick-witted, reflecting Iris and Gwen’s intelligence and perceptiveness.  These two women have Sherlockian powers of observation and deduction as well as skills in subterfuge and in the discernment of the truthfulness of those they are interviewing. Some complex sub-plotting centers on Iris’s sex life, which is, to use Gwen’s descriptor, “adventurous.”

Who is the novelist? Allison Montclair is a pseudonym for an experienced fiction writer who’s venturing into the mystery genre with The Right Sort of Man. It’s a highly successful venture, capturing the immediate post-war period in London and unveiling the lives of two women who survived and thrived.

For other excellent fictional treatments of women’s roles in Britain in World War II and afterwards, see my reviews of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mysteries (2003-present) and of Anthony Quinn’s Freya (2017). On the American side of the Atlantic, check out Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (2017), and for women in post-war Germany see Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle (2017).

1947 in the US and the UK: 2 Novels

By chance, I picked up from my library two historical novels set in the same year, 1947. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation of World War II, ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to get on with their lives. 

The Stars Are Fire     Anita Shreve     (2017)

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In 1947 coastal Maine, an extreme drought contributed to October wildfires that devastated nine small towns and left 2500 people homeless. Into this historical setting, Anita Shreve places a fictional young wife and mother, Grace Holland. Grace’s husband, Gene, joins a group of volunteers trying to fight the fires. Meanwhile, Grace is left to save herself, her infant, and her toddler by crouching with them for hours in shallow water at the ocean’s edge. As much of an ordeal as this is, Grace’s life after the fire poses even more challenges, since she finds herself without a house or any means of support. Kindly friends in a neighboring town take in Grace and her children, while she finds reserves of courage that she didn’t know she had.

There’s some melodrama in this novel, especially in several farfetched plot coincidences. And I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of full development of the character of Gene Holland. The Holland marriage, as it’s depicted in the months before the fires, is not a happy one, and Gene seems to suffer from depression. Shreve mentions that he served in World War II, so maybe he suffers from PTSD (“battle fatigue” in WWII parlance), but this aspect of his personality isn’t explored, so Gene serves primarily as a foil to Grace.  

On balance, however, the positives in this novel outweighed the negatives for me. A strong female lead character makes bold life choices in the face of terrible circumstances, and she’s surrounded by other distinctive female characters. The post-WWII American household is evoked well, right down to the wringer washers.  

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding     Jennifer Robson     (2019)

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In 1947 London, the severe rationing of the war years is still in effect, and many Londoners are mourning the loss of loved ones, both on the battlefields and in the Blitz. Then the wonderful, cheering announcement comes: Princess Elizabeth (whom we know now as Queen Elizabeth II) is engaged to marry Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (now Prince Philip). The fashion house of Norman Hartnell is commissioned to make the princess’s wedding gown, which is to be embellished with elaborate appliques and thousands of tiny jewels. These are the historical facts around which novelist Jennifer Robson imagines the lives of two of the working-class women employed as embroiderers by Hartnell—Englishwoman Ann Hughes and a French immigrant who survived Nazi persecution, Miriam Dassin.  

The tale of Ann and Miriam is enlivened by interspersed chapters from the 2016 life of the granddaughter of Ann Hughes, Heather Mackenzie, who lives in Toronto, Canada. Heather inherits from her grandmother a box of exquisite embroideries and an old photo of Ann and Miriam. Researching images that she finds online, Heather discovers that the fabrics look very much like the 1947 wedding gown of Princess Elizabeth, and she travels to London to get some answers. Why did Ann never speak about her stitching on this famous gown? Why did she emigrate to Canada? Who were Ann’s co-workers? What was it like to live in grim post-war London and yet spend your working days sewing fabulous materials for the British royal family? Heather unravels these mysteries from her present-day information, while readers gradually learn the facts from 1947.  

You do not have to know anything about embroidery (I certainly don’t) to appreciate the artistry being described by Robson. I kept turning back to the cover of the book, with its photo from the 1947 wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, to visualize that gown. And with Robson’s help I could easily picture Ann sitting by the wireless, eating gristly meat scraps, her slippers having been warmed in the oven because there was no coal for a fire on a bitter winter night. There’s romance in The Gown, and there’s exploitation, revenge, friendship, despair, and triumph.    

PS—For another novel set right after World War II, try The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, reviewed here.  

A Metafictional Mystery

The Word Is Murder     Anthony Horowitz     (2018)

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Not many writers would undertake a metafictional mystery novel, and far fewer writers would be able to write a successful one. Anthony Horowitz has nailed the whole metafictional mystery bit with The Word Is Murder. So how does he do it? And what is metafiction anyway?

I think of metafiction as a kind of second narrative going on in a piece of fiction, so that the reader has one foot in the fiction and one in the real world. Metafiction draws attention in some way to the artificial construct of a literary work. In The Word Is Murder, the fictional first-person narrator is a fellow named Anthony Horowitz, who is remarkably similar to the real-life author Anthony Horowitz. The real-life Anthony has written a trove of mysteries for the BBC (including the exceptionally fine series Foyle's War), as well as the  popular Alex Rider series of young-adult books and several standalone mystery novels (see my review of Magpie Murders). The fictional Anthony has these very same writing credentials. Exactly how much the fictional Anthony resembles the actual Anthony in personality is something readers really can't know, but I get the feeling that there is considerable personality overlap between the two Anthonys.

When you launch into The Word Is Murder, you aren't quite convinced that you're reading fiction, even though you plucked the book from a fiction shelf at your library. Fictional Anthony is telling you about a murder case in present-day London, against a backdrop of his current writing projects, which you know to be writing projects of the actual Anthony. When fictional Anthony introduces you to a rumpled and idiosyncratic freelance detective named Daniel Hawthorne, you're not sure if Hawthorne is actual, fictional, or a doppelgänger of some kind. In fact, all the characters might be real or might not be. But the murder case is gripping.

Diana Cowper is a wealthy London widow, mother of the Hollywood actor Damian Cowper. One spring morning she visits a funeral home to pre-arrange her own funeral. This act is not too unusual; many people choose to spare their families the choices and expense of such arrangements. What is unusual is that Diana is murdered in her home later that same day. The London police detective assigned to the case doesn't think that the two events are connected, but another police official hires Hawthorne to poke around nonetheless. Hawthorne is Sherlockian in his deductive powers and experienced in murder cases from his days in the police force. (He was fired, but that's another story.) Hawthorne persuades the fictional Anthony to accompany him on his investigation, so that fictional Anthony can write a nonfiction "true crime" book about the case.

Aside from all the metafictional shenanigans, the mystery itself presents many avenues for inquiry by the detectives. Ten years before her own death, Diana was the driver in a tragic auto accident that killed one child and severely disabled another. Might their family want revenge? Diana’s son, Damian, is a fast-living and egotistical fellow who stands to inherit her estate. Diana has been involved in what may be questionable business investments. Her housekeeper, who discovers her body, seems less than truthful. The red herrings keep multiplying, in a way that keeps you gobbling up those pages. A warning to sensitive readers (like me): There’s one violent scene toward the end of the book, but you can sense it coming and skim over it.

Horowitz has written a tour de force in both the metafictional and mystery arenas. I read The Word Is Murder on a long train journey, and it was a good thing that my destination was the last stop, because I would have missed it otherwise!

PS—For some non-mystery metafiction, see my review of The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies.

Books in Brief, Part 5

Every Note Played     Lisa Genova     (2018)

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Lisa Genova, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, writes novels that illuminate neurological diseases. Her 2007 offering, Still Alice, told the story of a 50-year-old Harvard professor who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. In her 2018 Every Note Played, Genova gives us the fictional Richard Evans, a world-renowned classical pianist who develops ALS (sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which destroys the neurons that control voluntary muscles. Genova takes the reader through the progression of Richard’s ALS over a period of a little more than a year, detailing the difficult medical decisions that he must make along the way. Even more significantly, Richard has to come to terms with the forced ending of his musical career and with his troubled relationships with his ex-wife, Karina; his college-age daughter; and his father, who never valued Richard’s musical talent. As Richard becomes increasingly helpless, Karina ends up, reluctantly, caring for him in her home. Genova depicts the stresses both on the patient and on his family and friends in painful detail, but the novel doesn’t become solely a case study in ALS. It stands on its own merits as a work of fiction about self-awareness, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

In the Midst of Winter     Isabel Allende     (2017)     Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson

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Three people with vastly different life stories come together during a blizzard in New York City in 2016. The car of Richard Bowmaster, a sixty-something American prof, slides into a car driven by Evelyn Ortega, a twenty-something undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. The resulting minor auto damage brings to light a murder and brings into the drama the character of Lucia Maraz, a sixty-something academic from Chile who is teaching in New York for the year. Each of these three has a tumultuous past, which is recounted in flashbacks as the murder mystery unfolds in present time. The narrative here is somewhat disjointed, and the mystery is transparent, but Allende’s mastery of language and dialogue, even in translation, is apparent. For an Allende novel that I consider superior to In the Midst of Winter, try reading The Japanese Lover.

The Only Story     Julian Barnes     (2018)

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This is an elegant, nostalgic, gloomy novel, in three sections. The first section, recounted in first person by the protagonist, Paul, is the story of the early days of a love affair between the 19-year-old Paul and the 48-year-old Susan. They meet at a tennis club in a town south of London in the early 1960s. In the second section, mostly in second person narration, Paul and Susan are living together in London, and their affair is not going well (read: boy, is this depressing). The third section, in third person, is a lengthy retrospective exploration of the nature of love, with a few narrative strands about Paul’s middle and older years. Barnes touches on the debate between inevitability and free will and probes the correlation between strength of feeling and degree of happiness. Throughout, the prose is refined and masterful, as you would expect from the author of the Booker-Prize winning The Sense of an Ending (2011) and many other novels. But if you pick up The Only Story, don’t expect a tidy wrap-up. Oh, and just what is “the only story”? Love. Love is the only story, and it’s infinitely complex.

The Meaningful Life

The Italian Teacher   Tom Rachman     (2018)

You may have run into someone like the fictional painter Bear Bavinksy: talented, brash, egotistical, smart, selfish, mercurial, ribald, cruel, a bear of a man. Unless you’re prepared to spar on his level, it’s best to steer clear of characters like Bear. But if he’s your father, you have to deal.

In this thoughtful novel, Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is the son who lives in Bear Bavinsky’s shadow. Pinch is one of the many children whom Bear fathers by numerous wives and mistresses over a long career in the twentieth century. (The total—and startling—number of children is not revealed until Bear’s funeral.) In Pinch’s childhood, Bear abandons the boy and his mother, a ceramicist named Natalie, in Italy. Pinch puts together a life for himself, going to college in Canada with the financial assistance of his maternal grandmother. He suspects that he may have artistic talent, like both his parents, but Bear quashes his hopes. Pinch ends up teaching Italian in London, always seeing his life as much lesser than that of his father, whom he worships. I don’t think that “worship” is too strong a verb here.

Within the narrative of The Italian Teacher, centered on this fraught father-son relationship, Rachman is pursuing the theme of how to have a meaningful life. For decades, Pinch views his life and his work as insignificant because he’s not an internationally renowned artist. “To succeed as an artist demands such a rare confluence of personality, of talent, of luck—all bundled into a single life span. What a person Dad was! Pinch decided that perhaps he himself had ability too, but this was insufficient. He lacked the personality. The art world was always beyond him.” (273-4)

Pinch mourns his mother’s lack of fame also: “She was disregarded, and will remain forever so, among the billions whose inner lives clamor, then expire, never to earn the slightest notice.” (151) Can persons with great talent, in any field of endeavor, be fulfilled even if they don’t receive the acclaim of the establishment in that field? What if they don’t have the stomach for the political machinations necessary for career building? Can they construct rewarding lives solely through quiet, solitary pursuit of their artistic or intellectual goals, with internal gratification? Rachman considers these questions from many angles, and he allows his character Pinch to struggle to find answers, as Pinch also struggles to free himself from the domination of his father’s personality and reputation.

Toward the end of the book, Pinch takes up painting after years of artistic inactivity. "Pinch raises  his brush, leans forward on the balls of his feet, floorboards creaking. From the corner of his eye: all these painterly tools, a kaleidoscope of colors, his companions. Is that tragedy? That the peaks of my life are entirely inside? Other people—those I so craved—mattered far less than it seemed. Or is this what I pretend?" (309-310)

Read this novel with care, savoring the development of Rachman’s characters and his attention to identifying those “peaks” in life.

20th-Century British Women

Freya     Anthony Quinn     (2017)

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My household has a treasured old photo of my husband’s parents in a restaurant on VE Day. My father-in-law is in Navy uniform, and a newspaper proclaiming “Victory in Europe” in World War II is on the table in front of the smiling couple. Roving photographers across the United States probably captured many scenes like this.

May 8, 1945, must have been even more joyous for the people of Great Britain, who had endured six years of war, including widespread bombings of civilian targets and the constant threat of German invasion. Anthony Quinn captures the exuberance of VE Day in London with the opening scenes of his novel Freya. In the celebratory crowd, the title character, Freya Wyley, meets Nancy Holdaway, and this meeting sets in motion a long and fraught friendship.

Freya is already a military veteran at age 20, having served for three years in the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, as a radar plotter. This background is key to understanding her career motivations. She was entrusted with highly classified and complex tasks to further Britain’s war effort, often putting in fifteen-hour shifts, but at the end of the war, the need for women to perform such work evaporated. Civilian jobs went to male soldiers returning from battle. Freya had gotten a taste of high-powered career possibilities and had engaged in several brief affairs, so the prospect of attending tradition-steeped Oxford University, which had been holding a place for her, seems, in her words, “trivial.” (22)

“To her the undergraduate routine felt becalmed after the frenetic rhythms of wartime; she missed the perilous excitement of being always on-call in the Wrens. . . It was not the war she wanted back but the sense of a shared endeavor, of knowing her own role in the grander scheme and being good at it . . . It also disheartened her to realise that the age-old accommodations of male chauvinism had not been eradicated by war—merely displaced.” (108)

On that fateful VE Day in 1945, Nancy, at age 18, is fresh out of secondary school in the north of England and is thrilled to be headed to Oxford. To Freya, Nancy at first seems hopelessly naïve and introverted, but as the story unfolds, it’s clear that Nancy has a depth and solidity of character that Freya lacks. Freya is strong-willed and ambitious, priding herself on her verbal banter and profanity, traits that sometimes made me want to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to shut her sassy mouth. Both young women aspire to be writers—Freya as a journalist and Nancy as a novelist.  

In three segments, this novel traces the relationship between Freya and Nancy:  at Oxford right after the war, in London in the late 1950s, and again in London in the early 1960s. The power dynamic between the two women shifts back and forth as each builds her career. Freya senses this early on, as Quinn notes: “It was an enlivening sense of being admired, perhaps even adored, and in consequence a desire to justify that admiration by becoming a cleverer and wiser person than she actually was. She supposed this striving for a better self was rather like being in love.” (77)

Larger-than-life supporting characters enliven the tale, including the louche actor/writer Nate Fane, the dissolute photographer Jerry Dicks, and the befuddled young model Chrissie Effingham. The names of these characters alone will point you to their personalities—“fane” quite close to “fame”  and so on. Freya, Nancy, and the crew get involved in fictionalized versions of the British events of the era, including political sex scandals and criminal prosecutions of gay men. (Some of these events could have been lifted right out of the 1983 biography of Alan Turing by Andrew Hodges, made into the film The Imitation Game in 2014.) All along, Quinn dissects the roles of women in post-World War II Britain with surprising insight.

Freya is oversized in many ways, including its length (556 pages) and theatricality, so I consumed it in great gulps. Although the novel is dialogue driven, Quinn’s prose descriptors are arresting. Here’s one example:  “He was wearing an undershirt and grey trousers with thin braces pooling about his waist like the dropped strings of a marionette.” (258-9) The cover photograph, which does not at all resemble the Freya described in the text, is a disappointment. The publisher, Europa, tends to use vintage photos for its covers, usually with more success.

In recent years, several excellent BBC television series have been set in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Grantchester, The Hour, and Call the Midwife. If you’re a fan of any of these, you will likely enjoy the novel Freya as much as I did.

British Chick Lit

My Not So Perfect Life     Sophie Kinsella     (2017)

The British writer Sophie Kinsella is a phenomenon in the chick lit genre. Her nine novels in the Shopaholic series (starting with Confessions of a Shopaholic, 2001) have sold in the millions and have been translated into 30 languages. She’s also written eight standalone novels under the Sophie Kinsella pen name. Writing under her actual name, Madeleine Wickham, she has another eight titles. I decided to find out for myself why this author is so popular around the world.

My Not So Perfect Life is one of the standalone novels, so Kinsella has to set up and then wrap up her story in one volume. In some ways it’s a straightforward romantic tale: struggling young working class woman falls for fabulously wealthy guy. But then added in to the mix is a small-scale workplace mystery, plus the British obsession with social class, accent, and county of birth.

Katie Brenner, age 28, is a low-level employee at a London branding firm that creates images and advertising campaigns for consumer products. She’s from rural Somerset, in the southwest of England, but her dream has been to live in London. Katie is barely surviving, sharing a miserable flat with two odd characters, enduring a lengthy commute, and navigating complex office politics. But she posts idyllic photos of London scenes on Instagram to lead her followers to believe that she’s happy. Her boss, Demeter Farlowe, seems to have a perfect life—perfect job, perfect family, perfect clothes, perfect makeup. Katie wants to be Demeter, and she’s taken steps in that direction, preparing a portfolio of branding designs and ideas, with hopes of rising in her profession. She’s worked to eliminate her Somerset accent and has styled herself as “Cat” instead of “Katie.” She’s also met and fallen for one of the executives of the firm.

A crisis comes when Katie gets fired. She has no choice but to return to Somerset, though she tells her family that she’s on “sabbatical” from her job. This is handy, since her father and stepmother are launching a glamping business, turning their farm into a glamorous high-end campground. Katie does a terrific job of setting up and promoting the business. Then who should appear for a week of elegant camping in Somerset but Demeter and her family. Comedy and romance ensue.

I found some of Kinsella’s plot elements contrived and tedious. For example, Demeter, who doesn’t recognize the Somerset version of Katie, agrees to undergo a fake Druid ritual that’s deeply humiliating. However, Kinsella makes Katie a pretty convincing character through first-person narrative. Readers may come to cheer Katie on as she resolves the rural/urban conflict and figures out her career and relationship options. She even becomes more honest in her Instagram posts. Here’s one of Katie’s conclusions:

“I think I’ve finally worked out how to feel good about life. Every time you see someone’s bright-and-shiny, remember: They have their own crappy truths too. Of course they do. And every time you see your own crappy truths and feel despair and think, Is this my life, remember: It’s not. Everyone’s got a bright-and-shiny, even if it’s hard to find sometimes.” (417)

A Reunion Romance

Miss You     Kate Eberlen     (2016)

Reunion Romances: You may not know the category name, but you’ve probably read one at some point. In a Reunion Romance, the two protagonists are not attracted to each other at their first meeting or are somehow thwarted in romance. They meet again at a later time—often years later—and then really hit it off romantically. Sometimes the protagonists meet several times before realizing how suited they are to each other. The tension in Reunion Romances arises from seeing the diverging paths of the protagonists and then watching those paths converge.

In Miss You, Kate Eberlen offers a Reunion Romance with a twist: the two protagonists, Tess and Gus, don’t actually meet until the very end of the novel. Well, they do see each other in passing many times over a period of about sixteen years, and through odd coincidences, they just miss meeting a couple more times. Anticipating and then spotting their meetings is kind of like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s brief background appearances in each of his films.

Eberlen has constructed, in effect, two separate coming-of-age novels, one about Tess and one about Gus, that link after 400 pages. In August 1997, when Tess is eighteen, she takes a European backpack vacation with a friend before she’s scheduled to start at university in London in the fall. Gus, who is also eighteen and also heading to university, is in Italy with his parents, and all three are still grieving from the recent death of Gus’s older brother. In Florence, Tess and Gus run into each other at tourist spots (a basilica, a gelateria) and exchange a few words, but they never introduce themselves. That’s it. Neither one remembers or thinks about the other for many years, although they meet or almost meet several more times.

In Miss You, the individual stories of Tess and Gus, each presented in first-person narrative, are well developed. Both characters face frustrations in achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves in life. Tess has to give up her plans for university when her mother dies, leaving Tess to care for her younger sister, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Gus, living in the shadow of his deceased brother, is pushed into studying medicine when he’d have preferred a career in the arts. Over time, Tess and Gus both have relationships with other people, but those relationships never quite work out.

Eberlen gives us full pictures of Tess and Gus, especially as they deal with the ongoing sadness of losing a close family member. And their sadness is not the same: Tess loved her mother dearly, whereas Gus was constantly bullied by his brother. The secondary characters, some of whom are doozies, come to life as well. The backdrop of London is lovingly described in many passages. Here’s one, with Tess narrating:  “No movie I’ve seen captures London’s variety: the serene elegance of the white stucco buildings; the improbable red-brick Christmas cake of the Royal Albert Hall, golden Albert glinting in the sunshine; horses galloping on Rotten Row; crazy swimmers diving into the Serpentine; and, near Hyde Park Corner . . . gardens with luscious herbaceous borders and pergolas of roses, planted and tended for no other reason than to give people color to look at.” (352)

Miss You is a fun read that would be especially good to take on vacation or on a long plane trip. Sure, there are a few contrived plot elements. For example, in a city with more than eight million inhabitants, it’s not likely that Tess and Gus would end up living on the same street. But that’s the stuff of Reunion Romance! By the middle of the book I was rooting for Tess and Gus, who are kindhearted and generous people, hoping that they would find happiness.

Amazing Maisie Mysteries

The Maisie Dobbs Mystery Series     Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear has recently published the thirteenth entry in her outstanding mystery series starring Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator working in London (and abroad) in the 1920s and 1930s. If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you should definitely get your hands on this series. It’s essential that you read the books in order from the beginning, so I’ve included the list at the end of this post.

Maisie gets her start in the detective field in a roundabout manner. At the age of thirteen she goes to work as a maid in a wealthy London household. Her employer, Lady Rowan Compton, finds Maisie reading philosophy texts in the home’s library and decides to support the girl’s education. A family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, who is himself an investigator, becomes Maisie’s mentor. In 1914, as she is starting her Cambridge university career, World War I commences. Maisie drops out to train as a nurse and then spends the war in France, in hospital tents right behind the front lines.

The war scars Maisie, both physically and emotionally. Her fictional experiences remind me very much of the factual story of Vera Brittain, whose bestselling 1933 memoir of World War I, Testament of Youth, is a tragic account of the casualties of that war and of the profound impact that the deaths and injuries had on families, particularly women, in England.

On the fictional side, back in London after the war, Maisie experiences  romance and despair and hardship. Following more training with Dr. Blanche, she’s ready to open her own practice as a “psychologist and investigator” in 1929. By chance, she meets Billy Beale, a veteran who had been a patient of hers in France, and ends up hiring him as her assistant.

Other recurring characters in the novels are Frankie Dobbs, Maisie’s father, a former costermonger; James Compton, son of Maisie’s first employer; Priscilla Partridge, an affluent and fashionable friend from Maisie’s Cambridge days; Simon Lynch, a brilliant physician in the war; and Detective Inspector Richard Stratton of the London police.

What I love about the Maisie Dobbs series:

  • the character of Maisie, who is a strong, intelligent, independent woman bucking a society that often doesn’t acknowledge her gifts.
  • the way that Dr. Blanche teaches Maisie to breathe slowly, observe closely, and get an intuitive sense of people and situations in her investigations.
  • the weaving into the stories of Maisie’s romantic attachments, mostly tied in some way to World War I and its aftermath.
  • the secondary plots involving Maisie’s relatives and patrons.
  • the meticulously depicted setting of Depression-era London, including everything from the bread lines to the women’s clothing.
  • the wrap-up of every case, in which Maisie goes back, after the crime is solved, to the places and people involved and seeks closure.
  • the irony of Winspear’s placing of a female detective in the period of the great classics of detective fiction. (See my post on this subject here.)

What annoys me about this series:

  • the assumption that the British nobility in the early twentieth century would actually support the education of a teenage maid in their household. I call this plot device “The Downton Abbey Propaganda,” since the same false assumption of noblesse oblige permeated that story.
  • Winspear’s breaking of the fair-play rule of detective fiction, which dictates that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows.

I want to emphasize that, despite these two objections of mine, I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of the Maisie Dobbs novels. In This Grave Hour (2017), set at the beginning of World War II, is unfortunately the weakest of the lot, with a poorly designed mystery and repeated authorial spurning of the fair-play rule. But do read the rest of Winspear’s books, starting with the award-winning Maisie Dobbs (2003), and continuing with Birds of a Feather (2004), Pardonable Lies (2005), Messenger of Truth (2006), An Incomplete Revenge (2008), Among the Mad (2009), The Mapping of Love and Death (2010), A Lesson in Secrets (2011), Elegy for Eddie (2012), Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013), A Dangerous Place (2015), and Journey to Munich (2016).   

Two Tudor Mysteries

Dark Fire     CJ Sansom     (2004)     PLUS    Lamentation     CJ Sansom     (2014)

Matthew Shardlake is the subject of ridicule on two fronts. He’s a lawyer, so he’s the butt of jokes about acquisitive lawyers. And he has a hunchback, so he gets crude comments about his physical disability. He’s trying to keep up with the everyday demands of his legal practice in London, that great center of political intrigue, when a high-level government official draws him into a time-pressured investigation of a dangerous new military weapon. And it’s also the hottest summer anyone can remember.

In some ways, not a lot has changed since the year 1540.

Dark Fire is the second in the series of historical mysteries by British historian and former lawyer CJ Sansom. We’re  in Tudor England, with Henry VIII on the throne, unhappily married to the fourth of his six wives. Thomas Cromwell is his chief minister, seeking to keep both his job and his head. Our hero, Shardlake, is in Cromwell’s camp, supporting the reformer against those who want to restore Catholicism to England. But Cromwell is about to be executed, and the novelist knows that his readers know this—or if they don’t, they can read his Historical Note at the back of the book.

In first-person narrative, Shardlake takes us along on his frantic mission, twisting through the streets of London and back and forth on the mucky Thames, sweating profusely and reeling from the reek of rubbish and ordure. He’s pretty peeved that Cromwell has coerced him into taking this dangerous assignment, by helping him on an unrelated criminal case. Shardlake is also terrified by the numerous attempts on his life; his many narrow escapes do become implausible, but mysteries are often like that. The book has numerous sub-plots, as Shardlake tries to satisfy Cromwell’s demands, carry on with his own legal cases, maintain his household, and possibly pursue romance.   

The mysterious weapon, Dark Fire or Greek Fire, is a petroleum-based liquid that’s propelled out of a metal device to quickly engulf a target in flames. As an ethical man, Shardlake is conflicted about the moral implications of the use of Dark Fire. His pursuit of the formula and of the flame-throwing equipment sends him into the secretive and fantastical world of Renaissance alchemy—a tough place for a man of logic and reason to find himself.

The cast of characters in Dark Fire is large, including both historical and fictional people, and corruption among the court toadies is rampant. Through the diverse characters he creates, the novelist explores Tudor-era prejudices that still trouble humankind: anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, disability discrimination, and intra-religion persecution. His treatment of these issues blends into his narrative, so it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed.

I was surprised to see Sansom’s fairly positive portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in this novel. Dark Fire was published five years before Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel Wolf Hall (2009) rescued Cromwell from the opprobrium of history with a detailed portrait of his rise to power. Mantel and Sansom both seem to be saying that history should not be reduced to simplistic good-guys-vs-bad-guys pronouncements. The historical figure Thomas Cromwell and the fictional character Matthew Shardlake are juggling a dozen balls at once, struggling to stay alive, to build their personal careers, and to act for the good of the nation.

Since Dark Fire was such a fine historical mystery, I decided to read the most recent volume in Sansom’s series, Lamentation. This sixth installment of the Shardlake stories is a slower read than Dark Fire, and it wades deeper into religious and political controversies. I relish the dissection of dogmas and doctrines in Tudor England, but if you aren’t interested in the Tudors’ ever-shifting definition of “heresy,” you may find Lamentation somewhat dismal.

The mystery in Lamentation centers on a possibly heretical religious book, handwritten by the queen and stolen from a locked chest in her private chambers. The queen is Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, who must get nervous in the night about the fact that four of her five predecessors were either divorced or beheaded by Henry. Queen Catherine calls upon our hero, Matthew Shardlake, to make discreet inquiries to find the secret book, to keep her from burning at the stake.

The queen’s book did actually exist, but its theft is fictional, as are the ensuing murders and escapades in taverns and dungeons and wherries all over London town. As in Dark Fire, most of the characters in Lamentation have been invented by Sansom. The pleasures of this novel lie in the interaction of the fictional characters with actual figures in Henry VIII’s court during the final year of the king’s life, 1546-1547. Throughout the text, Sansom points gently to the chaos that we know is waiting at the door when Henry dies: the throne passing to his underage son, King Edward VI (Protestant), then to his daughter Queen Mary I (Catholic), then to his daughter Queen Elizabeth I (Protestant). Sansom even gets in a few non-explicit predictions about the execution of King Charles I, which will occur a century later.

Sansom’s historical references are, to my knowledge, accurate, and only a very few anachronisms of speech creep in to his dialogue. The subplots are engaging, and the scenes of sixteenth-century London, in both the palace and the gutters, are constructed well. So if you like wallowing in convoluted royal intrigue, jump right in.

Here are all the books in CJ Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so far: Dissolution (2003), Dark Fire (2004), Sovereign (2006), Revelation (2008), Heartstone (2010), Lamentation (2014).

This book review is a bonus Sunday post!