The Spies of Shilling Lane
Jennifer Ryan’s lovely, gristly, involving mystery about a British matron who becomes an investigator in the wake of a humiliating divorce petition, The Spies of Shilling Lane is a surprisingly cozy mystery that’s presided over by a pushy heroine who’s a touch Miss Marple, a pinch Jessica Fletcher and a whole lot of amusing.
The intensely strong-willed Mrs. Braithwaite is on a train from Ashcombe Village to visit her beloved daughter, Betty, in London for the first time since the war broke out. In truth, she’s also trying to avoid the teeming drama of her own social circle. Once upon a time, she headed the local Women’s Voluntary Services and was the center of every happening. But Mrs. Braithwaite has now been exiled, a social pariah after her husband sued her for divorce making some untoward claims in his petition. She hopes Wandsworth Common will provide a respite from her difficulties, but when she arrives for her visit it’s the middle of the Blitz, bombs are dropping everywhere, and her daughter is missing. In the chaos it’s likely she’s been trapped, injured or killed somewhere else in the city according to Betty’s landlord, the nervous Mr. Norris.
But Mrs. Braithwaite doesn’t believe that her daughter is truly gone. Love of Betty and her love of mystery novels collide within her soul; if no one else wants to find her child then she knows the duty falls to her. From morgues to hospital wards to seedy pubs, Mrs. Braithwaite combs Wandsworth Common for some clue as to her daughter’s whereabouts. Dodging bombs, thugs and fascists, dragging a somewhat smitten Mr. Norris along with her every step of the way, she’s determined to produce results. But Betty’s personal life turns out to be highly complicated – and highly dangerous. Many men wanted her, and not just for her beauty. When she finds a coded letter in her daughter’s drawer Mrs. Braithwaite knows that she’s plunging herself into great danger, but a mother’s love –and her stubbornness –force her to press on. Is she in over her head?
Mrs. Braithwaite is hard to like at first – a snob, concerned with social classes, being a person of import and keeping the old ways alive, a contrast to Betty’s yen for education and rebellion and Mr. Norris’ desire for peace, quiet and simplicity. As she learns Betty’s secrets – and tries to protect the one secret she’s been hiding from Betty – Mrs. Braithwaite’s mind begins to open up, and her opinions begin to change. The journey from one point to the next in her development is a great one.
I really liked Mr. Norris and the foil he makes for Mrs. Braithwaite. He’s described by another character as “a man who wouldn’t say boo to a mouse”, and so he remains – well, to a degree. The two of them even begin to form a relationship that leans toward romance and begs for further novels to be written about them.
Ryan’s portrait of life in the London of the Blitz is incredibly interesting and well-researched. We go underground during a bombing session, and into the nightmarish, bloody aftermath of the morning after. Rationing and its attendant frustrations, manipulations and ugliness are addressed and handled with thought, as are pre-WWII attitudes about sex, women in the workplace and childbirth.
The mystery at the center of the novel is solved with surprising speed and then the novel becomes a different sort of tale – like a serpent, it slithers between being a spy thriller, a suspense novel and a cozy mystery. All the while, it keeps at its heart a warm core of interpersonal relationships.
The Spies of Shilling Lane is one of my favorite mysteries of the year thus far. It’s a fun, cozy delight of a mystery with an unusual heroine and thrills to spare that’s both a lot bloodier – and a lot more cheerful – than you think it will be when you first pick it up.
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