Maureen Jennings, well known and respected for her wonderful Inspector Murdoch novels set in Victorian Toronto, has changed things up and moved ahead in time to WWII. Her new novel is set not in Canada, but in Jennings’ native Britain. The setting is a tiny town in Shropshire, the time is just after the “Phoney War”, as Britain teeters on the edge of an apocalypse. Within the town is an interment camp for Germans living in Britain, who have been rounded up as a “precaution.”
Much like the camps in Germany, the British camp is filled with exiled intellectuals and artists, one of whom, Dr. Bruno Beck, is a psychoanalyst who studied with Freud. His expertise lies in the criminal mind, something the local policeman, Tom Tyler, is reluctant to utilize or believe in, though the case at hand so stumps him he is desperate enough to give anything a try.
With an entire other series under her belt, Jennings is truly a master at complex plotting, well drawn characters, and a way of making a particular slice of history come absolutely alive to the reader. She doesn’t inundate you with research or facts, but the atmosphere is complete and convincing. The details are all there, but they are in the background.
To me what she’s particularly gifted at are the subtle interactions between characters, catching a moment that’s a wispy as a thread, and making it strong and memorable. The book is filled with character subtleties and the story itself is a knockout. Like all good writers, she opens with an indelible character, and then, like even better writers, she kills this character. As a reader you are then completely invested in the story.
Lost to the world in the beginning of the book is Elsie, a Land Girl. Land Girls came from all over Britain to the countryside to help with farming as most young men had signed up. Elsie is from London, and feels a fish out of water. Jennings quickly establishes her as feisty, smart and a bit sneaky and then finishes her off. When Elsie’s body is discovered with a bunch of white poppies laying nearby, Inspector Tom Tyler is puzzled, and as he finds out more about Elsie, angered.
Tom is dealing with all kinds of family troubles–a traumatized son back from the front; a teenage daughter who appears to be hiding something; a wife he’s somewhat estranged from, and the reappearance of an old lover, Clare. Jennings skill at portraying an entire town is extremely deft. There are many different kinds of characters in this novel, yet it never seems crowded or overwhelming. It’s like you’re along with Tom Tyler on his travels, discovering the tiny Shropshire town for yourself, as well as the relationships Tom has with the people who live there.
The mystery part of the story is layered and complicated, though never needlessly so, and when another body is discovered, the suspense really kicks in. Jennings’ book will likely remind readers of Charles Todd’s fine WWI series, though, if I may say so, she moves the action along a bit faster than Todd. It’s also refreshing to read about WWII, as more mysteries are set during the first war than the second. The parts about the Land Girls were truly fascinating, as were the believable attitudes, hopes and fears of the characters in the story. Tom Tyler won’t soon be forgotten, nor will this wonderful, heartbreaking and illuminating novel.