“Something of a tour de force…”
This is the fourth book in the Bunch Courtney Investigates series. Bunch, whose name is a version of the childhood nickname Rosebunch (her true name is Rose) is now in a changed situation following the end of Book 3, Listed Dead.
Still living at the Dower House, with the family home Perringham Hall having been commandeered by a secretive part of the military, Bunch is in charge of a group of young women from the Land Army. Her father is busy in London, advising Winston Churchill, her mother is in a nursing home, and Bunch is running the family estates, under the watchful eye of her grandmother, Beatrice. She also has a semi-official position as a Police Consultant to the local CID, led by the tantalising Chief Inspector Wright.
So when the body of Laura Jarman, daughter of dubious industrialist Charles Jarman, turns up in a trunk on Brighton Station – and it turns out to be the third in a series, the only one that can be identified – Inspector Wright calls on Bunch’s intelligence, courage and growing detective skills to help him investigate the crime.
Against the background of wartime Britain, Bunch’s family life continues to challenge and complicate. Her mother, Theadora, a former alcoholic, is gravely ill. Her widowed sister Daphne (Dodo) lives with her father-in-law, Barty Tinsley, and infant daughter Georgi. Life goes on, and the dangers of war are ever-present, but in this story the clues lead beyond rural Sussex, to London and beyond.
Bunch has to visit mysterious Gellideg House, when Wright calls her in to use her charm on Charles Jarman, horribly scarred in an accident while doing experimental research. His work on munitions is beyond top secret, and she spots her old friend Henry Marsham, himself involved in secret service duties, arriving just as she leaves.
I like the way in which the intricate detail of the story and its background are pieced together, little by little, to build up a picture of the crime and its victims. The research is meticulous but never heavy, and it gives a strong feeling of authenticity to dialogue and descriptions. There is the landscape of rural Sussex in which Bunch is grounded, now transformed by wartime requisitions. And there is London itself, home of the wartime government, where Bunch and Wright travel a long way beyond their comfort zone into the thieves’ dens and munitions factories south of the river Thames.
Bunch herself is a wonderful character. She has two admirers, Henry Marsham and Chief Inspector Wright, but will never admit to herself that she likes them, let alone decide which one she prefers. The spectre of war and imminent death make it hard for her to form attachments, and she is fearful of losing anyone close to her – a fear that is sadly fulfilled before the novel ends.
In one sense, the Courtney family maintains a traditional British reserve and stiff upper lip, but there is never any doubt that they are caring and humane people coping in particularly difficult circumstances.
The mystery of the bodies in the trunks becomes more pressing. Who is the killer, and will they strike again? There are plentiful red herrings and misdirections for Bunch and Wright as they slowly wind in the thread, trying to form a picture of murder victim Laura Jarman, her family and movements. And then another body is found in the same circumstances…
Above all, there is the sinister Haven Cottage with its absent owners, which seems to have been used as a brothel by Canadian airmen at the local camp. Not far from Winchcombe and Perringham House, Haven Cottage may hold the key to the mystery – or not.
Once again, Jan Edwards has spun a gripping and enjoyable tale of murder and mayhem. I was eager to read to the end to find out what happened. There are some cracking characters, not least Bunch herself and the redoubtable women of her family, plus a cast of locals, policemen, military, crooks and even spooks. Everyone has believable character and motive, and though people’s flaws and demons are exposed by the police investigation and the inexorable march of justice, most are viewed with compassion and complexity – right up until the murderer is unmasked, in a nail-biting finale.
*Thank you to the author and Penkhull Press for the digital advance review copy. As always, my opinion is my own.*