REVIEW: The Lady from Burma : A Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery by Allison Montclair
Murder once again stalks the proprietors of The Right Sort Marriage Bureau in the surprisingly dangerous landscape of post-WWII London.
In the immediate post-war days of London, two unlikely partners have undertaken an even more unlikely, if necessary, business venture – The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. The two partners are Miss Iris Sparks, a woman with a dangerous – and never discussed – past in British intelligence and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, a war widow with a young son entangled in a complicated aristocratic family. Mostly their clients are people trying to start (or restart) their lives in this much-changed world, but their new client is something different. A happily married woman has come to them to find a new wife for her husband. Dying of cancer, she wants the two to make sure her entomologist, academic husband finds someone new once she passes.
Shortly thereafter, she’s found dead in Epping Forest, in what appears to be a suicide. But that doesn’t make sense to either Sparks or Bainbridge. At the same time, Bainbridge is attempting to regain legal control of her life, opposed by the conservator who has been managing her assets – perhaps not always in her best interest. When that conservator is found dead, Bainbridge herself is one of the prime suspects. Attempting to make sense of two deaths at once, to protect themselves and their clients, the redoubtable owners of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau are once again on the case.
Dear Ms. Montclair,
Brava! This series continues to get better and better by digging deeper and deeper into the lives of the characters as they go about matchmaking clients and solving murders. Well, if Iris and Gwen continue to become lead suspects and the Met hasn’t solved things yet, someone has to.
I was hoping that there would be a bit more matchmaking in this book and indeed there was. In fact, that’s what kicks things off. Several potential clients appear at The Right Sort Marriage Bureau but the one who captures their attention is Mrs. Remagen, who tells the duo that she eventually wants her husband to become their client at a suitable time after her death. Gwen is in tears by the time Mrs. Remagen has told her story but it’s Iris who adds some codicils to the standard contract and suggests getting the final £20 fee put in escrow. Gwen, who has an unmatched (no pun intended) ability to “read” clients secures from Mrs. Remagen a pledge not to commit suicide but to look for the joy in what time the woman has left before her painful cancer claims her life.
So when Mrs. Remagen is found dead only days later, Gwen and Iris are stunned, saddened and also skeptical. They are not the only ones as a young police Constable begs his superior to let him follow his instinct that “something” about the crime scene isn’t right. Meanwhile Gwen’s day in court to determine whether or not she will regain her freedom and be declared sane again – in the eyes of the law, King, and everyone else – is coming up. She wants to prepare for stepping into her role on the board of the Bainbridge owned business where she has inherited her husband’s 40% of the shares but a surprise move at the meeting throws things there and at her court hearing into chaos. Then more murders occur.
Let me tell you, the last 90 pages of the story had me hanging on for a “hell for leather” ending. I felt as if I was zipping along on Constable Quinton’s motorcycle with no concern for gas ration coupons. The clues with which Iris and Gwen managed to solve the various murders – and the bodies were really piling up thick and fast – were there. It needed both women putting their individual skills to work to suss through who did what to whom when and why. The plot would zig and zag then put (mainly) Gwen in a worse place causing me to (mentally) bite my nails and (silently) scream, “NO!” Then with each reveal I grinned at the subtlety with which everything was worked into the plot without adding any neon CLUE! signs. It was masterful.
But wait, there’s more! The story is packed with unfolding additions to our knowledge of Gwen and Iris and Sally. Talk about layers of characterization. Iris gets a chance to revisit an old romance and compare this to her relationship with Archie – something she intends to triumphantly announce to Dr. Milford. Gwen faces losing all the momentum in her case to (legally) regain her sanity but reveals a keen mind for business which earns her the growing approbation of her starchy father-in-law. Meanwhile Sally, who has been at Gwen’s feet for a few books, finally gives us a hint of what he did during the war, why he has set Gwen on a pedestal, and what he can and can not endure in a relationship with her. Intense, sometimes painful, self discovery stuff for all.
I finished the book reading flat out and punching the air at the way Gwen and Iris handle one suspected criminal confession and how Gwen’s knowledge of single malts helps her in another. The final scenes of dealing with grief almost had me tearing up – okay, okay yes I was tearing up – but one character has had this coming and desperately needed it while another has only just begun to confront his loss – the depth of which we realize from a conversation Iris has with a former Army commando. I was wrung out and satisfied at the same time and I can’t wait to see what happens next. A