REVIEW: The Right Sort of Man by Allison Montclair
Dear Allison Montclair,
I heard good things about you debut historical mystery, The Right Sort of Man, from Barb in Maryland and Liz McCausland. The book concerns two women, Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge, who open a marriage bureau (matchmaking agency) together in 1946 England. Even though I don’t usually read mysteries, this one sounded like fun, so I checked it out of the library.
I was able to get both and ebook and the audiobook from the library and I read in the evening and listened to the audiobook earlier in the day, while multitasking. I recommend the book over the audiobook, though. The audio narrator makes the twenty-something characters sound middle-aged.
Now on to the content of the book itself.
Gwendolyn Bainbridge is the mother of a young son and comes from an upper-class background. She was married to a man she loved very much, the heir to a title and the only son born to his parents. But then Gwen’s husband, Ronnie, was killed in the war, and she lost it for a little while and was hospitalized in an asylum. While she was there, her in-laws seized custody of her only child, a six-year-old boy and now his grandfather’s sole heir. Gwen has to live with them to spend time with her son, and they aren’t the easiest people to live with.
Iris Sparks, meanwhile, has a very different background and is familiar with both sides of the tracks. She was a spy, and maybe something else, during World War II, and she is still in turmoil over some of what happened to her. She is tougher than Gwen, though, and has left two cancelled engagements and other short-lived relationships in her wake. She is now living in a flat that is paid for a by her lover, a married man.
Gwen and Iris also have an assistant, a man named Sally who knows how to threaten clients who won’t pay their fee when it comes time to collect on their bills. One of the charms of the book is that Sally isn’t what he appears to be.
Iris and Gwen met at a wedding some months before the story begins. They realized they both had a talent for matchmaking and decided to open a marriage bureau together. The bureau is a means to independence for both of them, as well as something they enjoy. For Gwen, it’s an escape from the oppressive presence of her in-laws; for Iris, it’s a way of counterbalancing some of her wartime activities—a way of bringing more joy and love into the world.
When one of their clients, Dickie Trower, is accused of murdering another of their clients, Tillie La Salle, the woman they’d fixed him up with, their livelihood is threatened by the bad publicity. They are sure that Dickie was framed, too. Gwen, being tender-hearted, visits him in jail and decides to look into his case. Iris, being tough-minded, realizes that the agency’s success is at stake and that harm could befall Gwen if she doesn’t join her in investigating.
As they work together on solving the crime, Iris and Gwen get to know each other better, despite the pasts they can’t talk about.
Both heroines are delightful and there is something inviting about their story. It’s the story of their friendship even more than of the investigation. The book has a theme of women’s empowerment and yet Iris and Gwen never seem anachronistic.
One thing I want to emphasize is that the book is not at all heavy. It has a witty sensibility despite the backstories. Neither of the women feels a moment of self-pity (Gwen does grieve, though) and there’s no navel-gazing. They are very much women of their time in that sense. Iris is no-nonsense in a way that a lot of women of her generation were, I think. Gwen is more sensitive but has a sense of whimsy.
I loved the dialogue; here’s an example, from their first meeting (at a wedding, naturally). It doesn’t reveal anything crucial, but it is long, so I’m hiding it under spoiler tags:
That it is 1946 and the trauma of war is still fresh is part of the book’s subject matter, and despite the light touch with which that was handled, I had no difficulty suspending disbelief. The novel touches on Gwen’s grief and Iris’s acute regret for her actions during the war just enough to convey their pain while keeping the tone witty, clever and entertaining. The sense of history lingers—the loss of a generation and the privation and rationing are portrayed rather than summarized. Bombed-out husks of buildings haunt the book, evidence of the blitz.
As for the mystery, it was intricate enough to hold my attention. Although I suspected the person who turned out to be the killer, I wasn’t certain until it was revealed. We see the protagonists grow as they pursue their investigation as well. Gwen learns to stand up for herself and the initially closed-mouthed, past-shut-away Iris opens up a bit.
There is hint of romance which may or may not be further developed, but it is the main characters’ burgeoning friendship that is foregrounded.
At the moment, there are only a few negative things I can think of to say about the book:
There was a line of fat shaming in regard to a villain.
“God yes,” he said, plopping onto the chair which held bravely under the onslaught.
Also, the book is written in omniscient voice with a fair amount of head hopping. It wasn’t always clear to me whose thoughts were whose; at times I had to go back to the previous page to figure out exactly when the POV had changed.
All in all, though, it was a very enjoyable book. Light enough to make a good comfort read, but with a little substance under the froth. B/B+.