Allison Montclair: The Lady from Burma

Sparks & Bainbridge #5

July has been almost too delicious for words.  First was the long awaited return of Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry series; and then, just as eagerly anticipated (by me) is the new book in Allison Montclair’s Sparks and Bainbridge series. Five books in, fans of the series know that Gwen Bainbridge and Iris Sparks run The Right Sort marriage bureau in postwar London.  Iris did undercover work during the war; Gwen lost her husband, fell apart, and was literally declared a lunatic by her husband’s family, who have custody of her child and have put the portion of the family company she’s inherited from her husband under the control of the lunacy court.  It looks like, in book five, that the form of purdah Gwen finds herself in is about to be lifted. Her lawyer is hopeful and so is Gwen.

Meanwhile, she and Iris have been approached by a woman from Burma (hence the title) who has waited out the war for her husband to return from the Burma jungles. When he comes home, however, she finds she has cancer, and she’s at The Right Sort to make sure he’ll be looked after when she’s gone.  This has Gwen in tears and the practical Iris arranging financial details.  Gwen is certain she’s talked the woman out of suicide, but it’s not long before the woman’s body is discovered, an apparent suicide.  This is a mystery novel, however, and it is far more likely, of course, to be murder.

Montclair delivers on so many fronts.  First of all there’s a complex plot; there’s a distinctive setting; there’s an unusual occupation for the main characters; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are the characters themselves – believable, complicated human beings with opinions, emotions, intellect, curiosity – they are indelible.  Iris and Gwen have different backgrounds, but they complement each other.  While both have romances at different stages, the central relationship in the books is their friendship.

In this book, Gwen is having a hard time awaiting her hearing.  If it goes well, she will again have full custody of her son, and will be able to set up her own household.  The man appointed to her case by the lunacy court seems to have a vague hostility toward her, which naturally makes her nervous.  This arc has run through all the books to date and it’s brought to an excellent conclusion in this novel.  I won’t spoil it and give away which way the courts decide.

Surrounding it is a complex plot involving beetles, finances, and thwarted and uncertain romances for both Iris and Gwen.  The different threads of the novel – beginning at the Right Sort with the lady from Burma of the title – all tie up but it’s far from clear how they are related.  Oh, did I mention, these books are also page turners?  This is the kind of read where you’re super irritated to be interrupted for any reason.  This is one of the strongest entries in this wonderful series, which is saying a lot.  And stay tuned for the beetles. — Robin Agnew