REVIEW: A Rogue’s Company by Allison Montclair
In Allison Monclair’s A Rogue’s Company, business becomes personal for the Right Sort Marriage Bureau when a new client, a brutal murder, two kidnappings, and the recently returned from Africa Lord Bainbridge threatens everything that one of the principals holds dear.
In London, 1946, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting on its feet and expanding. Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge are making a go of it. That is until Lord Bainbridge—the widowed Gwen’s father-in-law and legal guardian—returns from a business trip to Africa and threatens to undo everything important to her, even sending her six-year-old son away to a boarding school.
But there’s more going on than that. A new client shows up at the agency, one whom Sparks and Bainbridge begin to suspect really has a secret agenda, somehow involving the Bainbridge family. A murder and a subsequent kidnapping sends Sparks to seek help from a dangerous quarter—and now their very survival is at stake.
Dear Ms. Montclair,
I am interested enough in the continuing stories of Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge that even though the last book didn’t thrill me, I wanted to see what would happen to them next. Though the framework of the series is about a marriage agency the two women are running, this addition to the series has almost nothing to do with that. Instead, it’s more personal, this time with Gwen facing the looming threat of having her beloved (and adorable) six year old son sent to a horrid English boarding school that his father, Gwen’s husband who died in World War II, decidedly didn’t want to see his son go to. I’ve always imagined shades of the school that Prince Charles was bundled off to when I think of (the imaginary) St. Frideswide. But wait, there’s more as another bit of family dirty laundry will be aired when Lord Bainbridge arrives home to the unloving arms of his thoroughly annoyed wife. The sparks really are going to fly in this one.
The friendship and bantering relationship between Iris and Gwen is central to this story as each will bring her strengths to solve not one but several crimes and a few mysteries. The book begins with a bit that is carried over from book two. Gwen is serious about improving her defensive skills as she and Iris just keep getting involved with dangerous things and people as they attempt to run their matchmaking business. What Gwen learns and how diligent she is about practicing it will have repercussions later in the story.
Then Lord Bainbridge arrives back in London from (the imagined) country of Nyasaland in Africa where the family business has extensive holdings. Gwen has been dreading this as her father-in-law seems determined to send little Ronnie to the school where generations of Bainbridge men have gone. Another thing Gwen continues to work on is meeting with a therapist as she tries to have herself declared competent enough to regain guardianship of her young son. Iris has also begun having meetings with him to begin to deal with some of the things she experienced as an agent during WWII. I was glad to see that these things were carried over from the previous books.
Soon Baindridge has the entire house and household denizens at sixes and sevens as he bashes about with his agenda, careless of how this affects others. Gwen must use her powers of polite conversation and innate good manners to soothe several people’s ruffled feathers and even finds herself sympathizing with her mother-in-law who resorts to alcoholic therapy to make it through another encounter with her husband. One thing that seems a little “off” to me is Gwen’s vaunted powers of discernment and ability to “read” people which come in a bit too handy at times.
Meanwhile Iris and her (very cliched) East London gangster boyfriend are having a bit of friction in their relationship which only increases when Iris asks Archie for a favor, seemingly unaware (which is odd) of what this could mean to him professionally. Sally’s skills and feelings (one reason why I don’t quite believe how easily Gwen is supposed to “read” people) are also useful.
The sheer number of crimes wrapped in mysteries here is astounding and I found myself losing track of a few of them before they were looped back into the narrative. It’s all skilfully done and ends up making sense but at times I wished I’d had a scorecard for plot threads and people. One of my complaints about the last book was the ridiculous exposition wrap up scene. Here, this is done much better. Yes, there still are some but it’s far more believable and spread out a bit.
Gwen and Iris’s friendship is going strong though they have a bit of tension a time or two which also makes things more believable. They are learning from each other but I was glad to see Iris coming to the conclusion that though she might have been able to live the materially comfortable life that Gwen does, she realizes that this wouldn’t make her happy. Gwen is gaining inner strength and professional confidence and gets to use her newfound powers of deduction. I had to laugh at the end when Archie complains to Iris about how Gwen and Iris turned his gang members into Lost Boys because I found this a bit ridiculous, too.
A new area of post war Britain is added in the person of an immigrant who plays a secondary role in what is driving Lord Bainbridge. Iris and Gwen must examine their feelings about race and the fact that neither had even considered that their agency would be asked to matchmake for any clients other than British/Empire born Whites. The various plot threads made more sense to me in this book unlike the last one that seemed all over the place. Some parts of the book dragged just a bit but then there were a lot of clues that needed to be introduced and discovered.
I do wish that more time had been spent on the matchmaking aspect but I guess that not every book can be centered on that. Seeing more inside the Bainbridge household was interesting and showed the lifestyle of the times but (again) also how post war Britain was changing. As I mentioned, having Archie’s gang get twisted around Gwen’s little finger was silly but on the other hand, she is showing more inner fortitude which is nice. A few bits of Iris’s past were brought up so perhaps the next installment will focus a bit on them. All in all, I had a good time reading this one and liked that I didn’t solve things immediately. B