A couple of weeks ago, Litlove of Tales from the Reading Room posted about the books she had received for her birthday and a goodly haul it was too. In amongst them was a volume that she glossed as 1920s detective fiction from Frances Brody, an author of whom I’d never heard. If I’m honest, it sounded a bit on the cosy side to me but I value Litlove’s taste far too highly to pass over any writer she chooses to recommend and so I ordered the first of what is so far a series of four from the library.
When it arrived I was still on the dubious side; I mean the cover looks as if it’s aiming at cosy, doesn’t it? Not, you understand, that I think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with cosy, it simply isn’t a genre I normally enjoy. Anyway, the librarian was also very enthusiastic so I tucked it in my bag, brought it home and then curled up with it over my own version of cosy – a pot of tea and a scone.
Well, never let it be said that I can’t admit when I have been wrong, or at least guilty of underestimating someone. Ms Brody writes well and offers a story line that is far from cosy, placing herself alongside the earlier (and, to my way of thinking, much better) Maisie Dobbs’ novels. Her investigator is Kate Shackleton, a young woman left on her own after her surgeon husband has gone missing during the First World War. Everyone but Kate is convinced he is dead but this is something she can’t bring herself to accept and as a consequence she has interested herself in the dilemmas faced by other families who need the certainty of knowing one way or the other what the fate of a loved one truly is. This has earned her something of a reputation and so, when an acquaintance with whom she served in the VAD asks her to try and trace her missing father, Kate decides that she might as well turn detective for real and takes on her first job for money.
Joshua Braithwaite’s disappearance is different. Yes, he vanished during the war, but not while serving in the forces. A prominent mill-owner in the Yorkshire Dales, he has simply dematerialised into thin air not long after his son, Edmund, has been killed on the Somme. His daughter, Tabitha, is certain that he is still alive and desperate for him to be present at her forthcoming wedding. Kate has a spare five weeks in which to find him.
Well, to borrow a well worn saying, there’s trouble at’t’ mill and there has been for some time prior to Joshua’s disappearance. Kate soon finds that there is more than one person who might well have rejoiced at the owner’s demise and some of them are too close to home for comfort. Needless to say, she gets to the bottom of the mystery with a series of unexpected but believable twists coming along nicely at the end before all is resolved.
Except all is not really resolved. One of the things that makes this novel stand out is that it isn’t nicely wrapped up at the end. Oh yes, we know who ‘dunnit’ but the result is far from a happy one for those most intimately concerned and Kate is left asking whether her involvement has really helped those who sought her aid. Whatever else, the end is far from cosy.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and already have the second in the series on order. But, I appreciated most the fact that it made me think about the nature of books like this and those by Jacqueline Winspear which explore the years immediately after the First World War, most especially the effects that the conflict had on those that were left behind. If you are going to be true to the period you can’t actually write a cosy novel because the period was anything but. You might write a book which sparkles with the brilliance of the lives led by some of the people in the early twenties, but if you’re going to be true to the reality you will also have to show the brittleness that underlies that brilliance as society came to terms with the truth of what mankind can do when it turns on itself. Sparkle some people may have done, but only as a way of hiding from a reality they did not wish to face.
This book doesn’t sparkle in that way, neither does it explore the horrors of the battlefield hospitals in the way Maisie Dobbs does, but nevertheless it is still imbued with the uncertainty of those left behind and also with the harshness of life for those trying to scrape a living in an society that was already beginning to falter as the economic horrors five or six years away on the horizon start to make their presence felt. Dying in the Wool is a novel with a bit of bite to it and as such definitely well worth looking out.