A murder, a runaway, a determined detective and a celebrity family; in some ways this sounds like an ideal book. Set in 1919, the First World War is over but the effects go on; for so many of the characters there is a sense of loss, but curiously the effects are not for the loss of loved ones. Possibly it has changed people, and not for the better, but in many ways this is more a story of two young women growing up. Full of coincidence, a few very laboured jokes, and some frankly bizarre happenings, it is a book which promised much but that I felt a little disappointed by; it tries to achieve many things but I think misses some of its self imposed targets. Possibly this is because it tries to blend fact and fiction in many ways, and the inconsistent behaviour of some characters is the result.
The book opens with a murder on a train. An older lady, rejoicing in the name of Florence Nightingale Shore, sets off from London to stay with a friend. She does not survive the train journey. Louise Cannon, a girl from the poorer end of London (a Peabody flat, which is a rather distracting fact that comes into the book, as is the Florence Nightingale link) is escaping from a truly evil uncle. She collides with the investigation of two young railway police officers, who fluctuate from having great responsibility to being expected to do nothing much. Guy gives her enough money and advice to set her off for a large house and the job of nursery maid, which she somehow gets. At this point Nancy Mitford appears, and while her well documented growing up is a glorious source for novelists, she is as seen as inconsistent as the rest of her family in a strange way. At one moment she is grown up and bossy, then she becomes a girl without a clue. This new life for Louise alternates between security and jeopardy, especially as the Mitford parents seem to allow freedom then clamp down. I have read enough of Nancy Mitford’s semi autobiographical novels to know that this was fair, but equally trying to shove these observations in with the story of Louise, Guy, a murder mystery based on fact as well as social history is a tall order, and not one that Fellowes pulls off well in the novel as a whole.
Altogether, this is a book which tries to achieve so much and I feel does not quite succeed. Some of the events and themes were not essential to the book, but would have made a separate novel. There is a lot of very impressive research, a good feeling for the era of damaged people, and poverty as experienced especially by women is touchingly described, along with the fear. However, Louise seems to manage rather well on very little cash, and the coincidences and attitude to Guy seem difficult to reconcile with the idea of someone from a very poor background. The suggestion seems to be that this is the first in a series of murder mysteries to be solved by a combination of the characters, and maybe the next novel will be less frenetic as the characters and setting are now established. This is a good read with plenty of atmosphere and interest, and will appeal to fans of murder mysteries in an historical setting as well as those attracted by the Mitford name. I am just disappointed by its lack of focus and large number of themes and characters as some of the very good ideas tend to get lost.