World War II and its immediate aftermath compose a well-trod territory for fiction, especially the British homefront. But I’ve never read a book that breathes life into the era quite like The Right Sort of Man, Allison Montclair’s sprightly new historical mystery.
It’s 1946. Rationing is still in effect, and the catastrophic damage of the Blitz still pockmarks the city’s surface, but London is shakily getting back to business as usual. For Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge, the end of the war has left them both somewhat adrift. And so they both leap almost gratefully into action when a client of their matchmaking agency, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, is accused of murder. Dickie Trower has been arrested for the killing of Tillie La Salle, a canny shop girl with whom the Right Sort had arranged for him to go on a date.
Elegant war widow Gwendolyn leads the investigative charge, at least initially. And while her fledgling attempts to understand the London transportation system without the aid of a chauffeur are endearing to the extreme, Montclair adds in twists of melancholy given Gwen’s still very fresh grief over her beloved husband Ronnie’s death. To make matters even worse, Gwen had a nervous collapse upon receiving the tragic news, was sent to a sanitarium for four months and subsequently lost custody of her and Ronnie’s child to his aloof, snobbish parents.
Montclair balances Gwen’s pursuit of both independence and the murderer with her partner Iris’ own struggle to adjust to peacetime. The Right Sort of Man’s rat-a-tat dialogue is never better than when Iris is eviscerating the latest unfortunate to stand in her way, or when she’s finagling her way into a new line of inquiry like a scrappy British cousin of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. And as with Gwen, Montclair slowly reveals the profound sadness that lies beneath Iris’ wry and witty exterior. “I can’t answer that” is her constant refrain when asked about what exactly she got up to during the war; it’s a running joke that becomes an increasingly sad motif, reminding the reader that the freedom and excitement of Iris’ classified activities on behalf of king and country have faded away.
But Iris can still use her less-than-savory skills and reach out to some of her shadowy war buddies to solve the case. As she and Gwen delve into the lower-class world of La Salle, who may or may not have been involved in a black market scheme with a very charming gangster, Montclair mines fantastic comedy from both Iris’ ever-increasing portfolio of underhanded skills and the very genteel Gwen’s interactions with Iris’ motley former comrades.
Brimming with wit and joie de vivre but sneakily poignant under its whimsical surface, The Right Sort of Man is an utter delight and a fantastic kickoff to a new series.