Allison Montclair: The Unkept Woman

This series goes from strength to strength. Set in just post WWII London, Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge run The Right Sort, a marriage bureau (apparently something that existed at the time). Iris worked in intelligence during the war, and Gwen, a daughter of privilege, is a bereaved widow who lives with her in-laws and young son as they have had her declared mentally incompetent.  The two find solace and purpose in running a business together, and my only actual quibble with this book was that there was really none of the marriage bureau in the plot (or very little).

Like the other books, however, the story begins when a woman shows up at The Right Sort supposedly looking for a match.  To Iris’ surprise, Gwen turns her down, and she follows the woman out the door.  It turns out she’s pregnant.  That’s something The Right Sort doesn’t handle.

Then there’s the matter of a dead body in the apartment Iris lives in, leased for her by her ex, Andrew.  When he turns up again, Iris calls in reinforcements in the form of her gangster boyfriend, Archie, and takes off for Gwen’s place to wait out Andrew’s infestation of her apartment.  Through a clever series of events, the dead woman is mistaken for Iris, and then Iris in turn is suspected of killing her.

Gwen, who is petitioning the court to be declared once again legally competent, has been advised to keep out of investigations as it makes her look bad.  Archie is hands off after Iris is arrested, as he can’t have the police turning up at his place of business. So Iris, who has also been disavowed by the intelligence community, is on her own and must find a way to figure out just who the dead woman was and what has happened to her.

Montclair is excellent at illustrating the post war world.  The dead woman was Polish, so we, as readers, learn about the state of Poles not only in Europe but in England as well, where they certainly feel aggrieved, with very good reason.  We learn about the slow return of “normal”, as Gwen visits an exhibition of the “new” with her son and sees all kinds of wonderful gadgets and ideas that will be used in the future.  It’s a strange time of hope on one side and the lingering grief and despair left by the war on the other.  What comes from that dichotomy will certainly be “new.”

What’s also excellent are the characters, the bond Iris and Gwen share, and the snap of dialogue and plot.  These are incredibly intelligent, well written novels that hinge on plot as much as they do on character.  The complications introduced make way for a solid solution, one that has some interesting twists to it.  Montclair is also keeping to her title: Iris is “unkept” by literally everyone; Gwen is seeking a way to be “unkept” by the courts. I enjoyed every minute of this thoughtful, entertaining journey.