In Farleigh Field
In Farleigh Field is a standalone murder mystery with a patina of romance set in Kent involving MI5 operatives and Bletchley Park decoders during World War II. Simply knowing this sold me on the book, and Ms. Bowen delivers on the promise of the premise with an exciting story. She’s really a master of the quiet mystery.
The book opens shortly before Britain’s declaration of war on Germany with a cricket match in progress on the village green of Elmsleigh in Kent. As Ben Cresswell, the vicar’s son, waits for his turn to bat, Lady Pamela Sutton, the third daughter of the Earl of Westerham, approaches him, pleasing Ben no end. He has been in love with her since they were children, but her preference is for their third playmate, Jeremy Prescott, the only son of London financier, Sir William Prescott.
Jeremy’s dramatic landing of his plane next to the cricket pitch results in his offering Ben his first ride in an airplane. Unfortunately, Jeremy’s rash joyride ends in a crash that permanently damages not just Ben’s leg, but also his hopes for entering the RAF and doing his duty by his country.
Fast forward two years, and Jeremy’s thriving in the RAF and has garnered honors for his daredevil forays into enemy territory. However, on one such mission he’s shot down and captured by the Germans. It’s now been almost a year that he’s been stuck in a stalag luft.
Pamela was devastated, but follows her father’s aristocratic creed:
“Stiff upper lip at all times. We must set an example. Never let anyone see you are upset or afraid. People look up to us, and we have an obligation to show them how it’s done.”
In the meantime, a friend from her London début days approaches Pamela to work for a ‘hush-hush’ government department. Trixie says, “He’s looking for girls like us. From good families. No nonsense. Nor prone to hysterics.” And also those who are educated and will be patriotic and loyal. As it turns out, Pamela, who speaks excellent German, has been recruited to translate intercepted German messages.
Pamela is horribly conscious of the importance of her job and that a failure to translate or a mistranslation might mean hundreds of lives lost. The war has finally come home to her.
As it has for Ben. He’s been recruited by MI5 and finally feels he’s making a difference in the war effort. Like Pamela, he realizes that you don’t have to be a soldier on the front line to be doing your patriotic duty.
Back home at Farleigh Place, Pamela’s twelve-year-old sister, Phoebe, is saved from riding over the body of a dead soldier by the quick-thinking and actions of Alfie, the gamekeeper’s boy. The children realize that the soldier’s parachute had failed to open and he’d literally fallen from the sky – and they rush over to convey the news to the earl.
Farleigh Place has been commandeered for the war effort, and has been taken over by the Royal West Kent Regiment, under the command of Colonel Pritchard. Lord Westerham isn’t happy at the situation as this means the Colonel’s instructions have to take precedence over his, but in this matter, he defers to the colonel, because the dead solider seems to be wearing the uniform of the Royal West Kents. But the colonel vehemently denies that the soldier is one of them. “Our chaps don’t go leaping out of aeroplanes. We’re strictly infantry.”
The soldier carries no identifying documents, just a single mystifying photograph. So the colonel sends his identity disks and the photograph to military intelligence for further information. Both the earl and the colonel are conscious of the fact that the soldier could very well be a German spy.
Why did he parachute down into Farleigh Field? Did he mean to land at the nearby Biggin Hill RAF station? Was he the vanguard of a German invasion? Was he passing information on to somebody locally? Where is the place shown in the photograph and what significance does it have?
Ben is summoned to London’s Dolphin Square to the ultra-secret office run by the famous Max Knight. Mr. Knight wants him to nose about the village and its environs to find out who’s new to the area and what people think about the soldier’s dramatic entry into their lives. Ben’s subtle questioning in his home ground will be unremarkable, so he’s perfect for the job.
And so the murder mystery takes off.
With such a large cast of characters, I appreciated having a cast list to refer to. I also liked that each scene change was a new chapter with the place and date up at the top. This helped to orient me in the story.
Ms. Bowen builds the wartime atmosphere very realistically, from food shortages to stately homes overrun with soldiers. While Londoners were condemned to poor food on rations, those in the Kentish countryside with kitchen gardens and animals fared better. The situation of Farleigh Place was similar to that experienced by places such as Blenheim Palace: soldiers everywhere and houses sacked. Ms. Bowen’s lovely writing also brings the countryside to vibrant life. Above all, I enjoyed the taut tension she creates in an otherwise quiet leisurely mystery.