This Side of Murder
With two series of historical mysteries already on the go – Lady Darby and Gothic Myths – Anna Lee Huber jumps into her new Verity Kent series with This Side of Murder, a smashing and engrossing tale of deceit, murder and betrayal set just after World War I. As with Ms. Huber’s other books, the story is told in the first person from the heroine’s PoV, and there is plenty of astute observation and historical flavour that puts the reader firmly into the world of post-war England some seven months after the Armistice. The isolated island setting and disparate group of individuals who comprise the secondary cast list are most definitely reminiscent of some of the works of Agatha Christie, but this is no copy-cat story, and it will certainly work for fans of historical mysteries whether they’re fans of Christie or not (for the record, I’m not, and it certainly worked for me!).
Mrs. Verity Kent is about to decline an invitation to a house party to celebrate the engagement of one of her late husband’s closest friends when she receives an anonymous note indicating that Sidney Kent may have been a traitor. The sender clearly knows that Verity worked for the Secret Service during the war – something she had never even told her husband – so intrigued, angry and wanting desperately to find out the truth, Verity changes her mind about the party and plans to attend, intending to see what she can find out from Sidney’s former comrades.
She is on her way to Poole Harbour at the wheel of her late husband’s prized possession, his Pierce-Arrow, when she almost collides with a Rolls Royce coming in the opposite direction. Having ascertained no damage has been done or injury sustained, the driver of the Rolls, a handsome gentleman a few years Verity’s senior, introduces himself as Max, Lord Ryde. During the course of their short conversation, Verity learns that not only is Max on the way to the Ponsonby house party, but that he had known Sidney and, for a short time, been his commanding officer.
Verity and Max jump back into their respective cars and head for the harbour, where the rest of the party is awaiting their arrival. It’s a fairly disparate group; a few single men and women, three couples… none of whom appear – at first – to have a great deal in common, although it emerges that all of the men had served together in the same battalion as Sidney Kent, the “unlucky” Thirtieth – so-called because it was all but wiped out at the Somme. Relations are strained and tensions run high as harsh words are exchanged and unpleasant accusations fly around; it’s clear this group of men doesn’t want to speak of or be reminded of their wartime experiences and actions – and just as clear that there are dangerous secrets being kept, secrets that someone is prepared to kill to protect.
Anna Lee Huber has crafted a truly captivating mystery here, one which has its roots in the trenches and on the mud-laden, bloody battlefields of northern France. She very skillfully builds the tension and atmosphere of paranoia among the characters and does a superb job of portraying the post-war mood in England where so many people were coping with so much pain and loss and attempting to move past the horrible things they saw and did during the conflict. There’s a real sense that the characters are barely able to contain their emotions beneath a thin veneer that could crack at any time, and while Verity is no exception, she’s a thoroughly likeable character; clever, resourceful and resilient. She married Sidney Kent shortly before he left for France and had been looking forward to beginning their lives together, but it was not to be. They only managed to spend a few short periods of time together during his army leaves, and the fact that she never really had the chance to get to know Sidney has made her grief even more difficult to cope with. Like many others in her situation, she tried to numb the pain by drinking too much and partying too hard, using forced high spirits and plenty of booze as a survival mechanism. But unlike many young women of her class, she was able to ‘do her bit’ during the war by working for the Secret Service, which did at least give her something to focus on besides her grief in the time immediately following Sidney’s death. Now the war is over, she is struggling not only to cope with his loss, but also with the loss of the sense of purpose she had gained as a result of her work.
She’s a very relatable heroine and I very much enjoyed following her as she and Max try to work out who is murdering house-guests while she is quietly pursuing her own investigations into the accusations levelled at Sidney. Verity is a little confused – and perhaps feels a bit guilty – about the fact that she is attracted to Max, but a sudden and very unexpected development gives her no time to contemplate it and instead causes her to question everything she knows about Sidney and her marriage and sends her investigation off in a different – and dangerous -direction.
The mystery is very well-constructed and kept me guessing throughout as I eagerly turned the pages, anxiously awaiting each new twist, turn and clue. It’s wrapped up most satisfactorily by the end of the book and the evil-doers are brought to justice – but Verity is left with a completely new set of challenges to face, and I am eager to find out just how she confronts them.
This Side of Murder is a terrific start to this new series of historical mysteries and is a book I have no qualms about recommending to all, whether you’re a fan of the genre, the author, or are new to her work.