The Midnight News is a tense, atmospheric thriller that’s unlike any World War II novel you’ve read before. British author Jo Baker has written a number of novels, including A Country Road, a Tree, set in Paris in 1939, and The Body Lies, a psychological tale of a woman recovering from a physical assault. Baker’s latest combines elements of both these novels, focusing on its 20-year-old heroine, Charlotte Richmond, who is fending for herself in London during the Blitz but feeling increasingly wary of a male stranger who seems to be stalking her.
As the novel opens, Charlotte’s beloved brother has been killed in the war, and she misses him terribly. Her mother is dead, she’s estranged from her father, sister and stepmother, and she’s supporting herself by working as a typist for the Ministry of Information. She lives in the attic of a walk-up apartment, from which she watches bombs drop over the city at night. Baker’s historical details convey the dreary dread that has taken over everyone’s life, especially Charlotte’s, during the Blitz, as bodies pile up, buildings fall down, and air raid sirens never seem to stop.
It becomes apparent that Charlotte has mental health issues: As her godmother explains, she “did a spell in the loony bin a while ago.” Charlotte entertains suicidal ideations, especially after several people she’s close to die in air raids. In fact, she becomes suspicious that these women were actually killed in some other way, probably by the ominous man she keeps seeing in the streets. She also hears a chorus of voices in her head; they are the people she has lost, and they give her advice and even talk to one another, often in highly amusing ways. It’s a narrative choice that is hard to pull off, especially in a sustained fashion, but Baker does so with panache.
To investigate the deaths, Charlotte enlists the help of a young man whose family runs an undertaking business. Tom has some physical challenges with his gait and one hand, and the war has made his university coursework uncertain. His family life is much less opulent than Charlotte’s was, and Baker explores these class differences, especially as the war exacerbates them.
The plot grows more and more tense, even wild, with few hints as to how things will play out—whether a serial killer is on the loose, or whether Charlotte is simply out of step with reality. Throughout, however, Baker is firmly in control, and voila, she pulls it off, wrapping up plotlines in surprising ways while returning The Midnight News to a war story, a love story and a commentary on social mores that remains relevant today.