REVIEW: The Unkept Woman: A Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery by Allison Montclair
The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals – Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris’s past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son – a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.
Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.
Dear Ms. Montclair,
Brava, I say. Brava! Action, murder, friendship, past loves, presents loves, spies, and some forward movement in both Iris’s and Gwen’s separate issues along with a case that kept me glued to it so that I flew through two hundred pages in just an afternoon.
First there is a dead body found and then the action jumps to two days previously when Gwen Bainbridge and Iris Sparks meet with a potential new client right as two other things happen. Iris is trailed by someone on her way to work and later finds her former lover, who has paid the rent on her flat, there when she gets home. Why is this man, who is still working with British Intelligence as did Iris during the war, taking up space there and does he have any contact with the potential client?
Meanwhile, Gwen and Iris are both still seeing Dr. Milford. Gwen is almost ready to pursue her case at the Lunacy Courts to be declared legally sane. This would allow her to live independently of her controlling in-laws, regain her inheritance, and be the sole guardian of her young son. Her barrister warns her not to take part in any more investigations so when the police turn Iris’s life upside down and she’s suspected of murder, Gwen is forced to turn down her request for help. Or will she?
I have to say that everything here fits together, slots together, and makes sense without being in any way over the top – unlike “A Royal Affair.” Since there are so many issues that have been introduced in past books that are brought up here, I don’t think it would be either easy or recommended for readers new to the series to start with this one. Plus the discussions that both Iris and Gwen have with Dr. Milford, the psychiatrist whom Gwen was first seeing and who Iris has now begun to see, are much more insightful and wrenching if readers know the backgrounds of the two women.
About those discussions. In previous books, we’ve been told that Gwen had a breakdown when news of her husband’s death reached her. The details are finally mentioned here and that is one of the WARNINGS I have for the book. Gwen truly was fragile then and has made great progress since her release from a sanitorium. I can also, just a bit, understand why her in-laws did what they did for both her health and to take care of her son, young Ronnie. Both in-laws are slightly present in this story and show glimmers of possibly being redeemed. And young John is trying to find his footing in his new family and with the racism thrown his way in London. Anyway, I look forward to seeing what happens in the next book about all of this.
Iris also has some insights about her feelings and past actions that might free her to finally let go of her lingering emotions about her war espionage past and look towards her future both romantically and in regards to British Intelligence. Ah yes, they are also all over the plot along with some people who might not be who they say they are. Plus Polish survivors now in Britain are trying to make new lives for themselves while still struggling with how Poland was betrayed after the war.
But what about the murder? There are spies and police all over the place but it’s the skills and knowledge of Gwen and Iris that cracks the case. It was delightful as well as suspenseful to watch them both use their old (in the case of Iris) and new (in the case of Gwen) espionage tricks to try and then manage to figure out who dunnit and why. Plus the remains of Gwen’s family finally make an appearance.
This book was a doozy and not just because I learned that (at least at the time) there was actually a Master of Lunacy. The plot was tight, the emotions were there, actions made sense, and I didn’t roll my eyes or yell at anyone to “not go in the dark basement!” People used their heads and although the police didn’t crack the case, they also weren’t made to look like fools either. A-