Death at Greenway
Death at Greenway is described as a “captivating suspense novel about nurses during World War II”. Oddly enough it merits neither descriptor.
Bridget Kelly has made a deadly mistake – or so her supervisor has informed her. As a trainee, Bridget is to walk the wards with an actual nurse and offer assistance, not perform treatments herself, but seeing the floor sister run off her feet she had stepped in, administered a dose of medication and a patient had died as a result. Up to that point, Bridget had excelled at her coursework, so it is determined that rather than being dismissed outright (or prosecuted for murder) she will accompany a group of evacuee children to the countryside. More specifically to Greenway House, home of famed author Agatha Christie (who plays absolutely no role in this novel.) Bridget is given a letter of introduction and sent to meet Mr. and Mrs. Arbuthnot, the couple in charge of the evacuation, at the train station.
Although they have only a small group of kids to care for, the rendezvous at the station is chaotic. Parents are having second thoughts about sending their little ones away and Mrs. Arbuthnot is having to work to convince them to do so. There is much crying and wailing as families take leave of each other, and in the pandemonium, Bridget manages to ‘lose’ her letter of introduction and make it unimportant by being a huge help to the Arbuthnots in getting the children loaded onto the train.
When it is discovered that the second nurse on the journey is also named Bridget Kelly, our nurse takes the name Bridey, the other takes the name Gigi. Mrs. Arbuthnot finds ‘Gigi’ a rather frivolous name, but it turns out to suit the girl perfectly. She disappears once they get underway, leaving Bridey alone with all the kids as Gigi goes about making some new friends a couple of cars over. Gigi does eventually come back, her new companions in tow, but proves even then to be of little help.
The rest of the story is taken up with getting settled at Greenway, Bridey’s fear that she will be discovered as a fraud (she isn’t *technically* a nurse since she never completed training, but Mrs. Arbuthnot assumes she is since Bridey threw away her letter of introduction) and the alternating points of view of all the bitter people now living at Ms. Christie’s country house. They are: Mr. and Mrs. Scaldwell, housekeeper and butler, who are angry at being forced to serve a bunch of refugees from London. The Arbuthnots, whose own home in Jersey has been taken from them by the Germans and who discover they are not looked upon as renters (although they have paid a year’s worth of rent for Greenway) but as intruders who are not allowed to actually live in the house but are confined to the servants quarters with the Scaldwells and the children. Our primary narrator, Bridey, who is overwhelmed by grief and battle fatigue (PTSD from the London bombings and caring for the wounded from numerous battles) is a bit slow to act as a result. There is a lot of complaining but very little mystery.
Eventually a body is discovered, healthy middle-aged men in the village die, a woman goes missing, Gigi disappears and Bridey decides to figure out if any of it is important by training to be a detective via reading Mrs. Christie’s books. She never actually investigates, though, just stumbles upon information as she goes about doing her job. She is the passive recipient of a lot of information and while she does take some action to see a certain degree of justice done, that behavior is low key and very minimalistic.
I found this book more than a bit of a slog. It’s historical fiction about the way grief and PTSD can combine to change a person, but the author never lets us close enough to the characters to help us understand that grief. Bridey has become dissociative as a result of her pain, and she is described as almost inert and unresponsive. She can perform her duties but she is not warm and loving about it, according to those around her, and from my perspective, she seemed to just float around whining about Gigi not doing her share of the work.
Gigi, by the way, like Bridey, is not an actual nurse. That is easily figured out almost immediately. She is clearly in hiding but she’s such an uninteresting character that I followed her story as to why with little interest.
There is some very understated romance. Gigi has an affair with a young woman from the village and Bridey has two love interests – a local doctor and a boy back home named Tommy. Combined, they probably take up less than ten pages of text in a book over four hundred pages long.
There are some redeeming factors. The writer’s prose is smooth and descriptive, and the history, while not spectacularly detailed, is interesting. I would imagine there were many families like the Arbuthnots, comfortable but not wealthy, who found themselves displaced by the war and moved down in society as a result. Equally easy to believe in are the Scaldwells, people in service all their lives with no home of their own and no say in what happened to or in the place they lived, forced to deal with whatever fate threw at them. Few books highlight how very emotionally traumatizing all the grief and fear caused by the Blitz and the deaths of war must have been to those living through them. It’s a sobering reminder that the people who were being exhorted to pull together and keep a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity were probably less successful at it than most of us have been taught to believe.
Those factors kept Death at Greenway from being an awful read but they weren’t enough to make it great. If you enjoy leisurely paced historicals this might work but it definitely isn’t enough of a mystery to engage fans of that genre.