Betty Church is a police officer. This was unusual, especially in small town Suffolk, 1939. She is rather unusual anyway, a gritty and determined young woman, who has seen and experienced much in her career in the Metropolitan force, when she was famous for never backing down in the face of aggression. She is also remarkable in another respect, she is the goddaughter of March Middleton, who was the goddaughter of the foremost investigator in London, the great Sidney Grice of Gower Street, London. March is now elderly, but still formidable, an incredibly well connected woman. So when Betty turns up on the doorstep, convalescent but desperate to return to duties, she promises to use her influence “There are still men of influence who have reason to be grateful to me or fear my knowledge and there is no point in having strings if you do not tug them occasionally”. This is a book of sometimes understated, sometimes broad humour, which includes some fairly grisly murders.The characters are superbly drawn, with a fair range of useless police officers and the very special Dodo. As Betty is sent, as a newly promoted police Inspector, to Suffolk where crime is rare and she originated from, she realises that it can be seen to be the “dumping ground” that she was concerned about. Within hours of her arrival, she realises that there may well be more challenges here than she thought.
The arrival at the police station is marked by her discovery of what she at first thinks is a dead body, but turns out to be a memorable police sergeant called Briggs. She discovers that everyone expects a male police Inspector, and that the resident inspector is determined to maintain his seniority and to lay claim to the most exciting cases. The constables are a motley crew as they arrive on the scene, most significantly a childish but strangely endearing young woman called Dodo, with family contacts and a strange line in quotes and observations which test Betty’s patience. Betty also encounters her neglectful parents, who do not trouble to display any interest in her. There are people who she feels closer to, those who remember her from her childhood, those who know something of her romantic history. She soon discovers that it is not all quiet in Sackwater, where there are violent men who threaten women and sudden not quite explained deaths. The oncoming war is creating its own problems, with paperwork and regulations, the blackout and a threat to those of foreign citizenship despite their long residence. Some men have to depart for the military, leaving women with a broad range of reactions.
Betty has to cope with a lot of problems and challenges in this subtly amusing book. I really enjoyed the humour, as Betty narrates her true reactions and what she thinks but does not say. The characters are brilliantly drawn, from the barely useful police officers to those in the area who believe they have the answers to the mysteries. There are those who make assumptions about her, attack her because she is a woman, those who are bewildered by her, and those who find her a little threatening. This book makes reference to the five Gower Street Detective series, and itself is the first in a series. I really enjoyed every part of this brilliant book, and would recommend it as a tremendous read on many levels.
My first encounter with this book was in the crime fiction department of Heffers bookshop in Cambridge, where I invested in a signed first edition of this book. Well, we had spent fifteen years in Suffolk, and the time period in which this book was set seemed to be just right for me. Husband meanwhile had just worked out how to borrow audio books from the library, including this one. We enjoyed listening to the first half of it in the car, before Husband changed his phone and we lost access to it. So when I decided to read this book the first part was familiar and really enjoyable, and the second half was not a disappointment. It is tremendously funny, and is well narrated on the audio book. I usually fall asleep listening to audio books – but never this one.