It’s too bad I started reading Allison Montclair’s The Right Sort of Man when I returned to work after the holidays because I wanted the luxury of inhaling it in hours instead of days. First, it came recommended by MissB’s reader, Barb, always spot-on; second, it held much tropish goodness: historical, check; mystery, check; women forging paths in post-war-England, check; engaging voice, check; witty, rapid-sharp dialogue, check; glimmers of love interests, check. And, I cannot say this enough: it’s moving without being lugubrious and the characters grow in believable, positive ways. (More than anything, my ugh with litfic is the latter. If you have any recs about this, they’d be welcome.)
Montclair creates a pair of female amateur sleuths who start a marriage bureau agency in post-WWII London. They’re an unlikely, contrapuntal pair whose professional relationship grows into a friendship. If you’re keen on romance tropes, they’re an opposites-attract version of female friendship. Montclair opens her novel, cleverly-like, with the victim, one Tillie LaSalle, seeking a match from Gwen Bainbridge and Iris Sparks’s Mayfair matchmaking establishment, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. We soon realize Iris and Gwen are as unlike in personality as they are in height. Gwen is the willowy, still-grieving widow of would-have-inherited-a-title Ronald Bainbridge and mother to six-year-old Ronnie. Iris, on the other hand, a former ton-ish wild girl about town, did some secret service work during the war and has derring-do recklessness to Gwen’s methodical care.
They are eager, dedicated businesswoman immediately on the matrimonial Tillie LaSalle case. They set her up with quiet accountant, Dickie Trower, but the date is cancelled via a mysterious missive. Soon thereafter, Tillie is found dead and Dickie, with a bloody knife under this mattress, is arrested. Mysterious men show up at the marriage bureau, the police is close-mouthed and closed-off, Tillie turns out to have been more nefarious than first met the eye and soon, Gwen and Iris are convinced client Dickie is innocent. They resolve to prove his innocence, confronting gangsters, black marketeers, former lovers, in Iris’s case (an intriguing narrative thread I hope Montclair picks up in her next Bainbridge and Sparks mystery), in an England still mired in war-time privation and rationing. If you like, Montclair’s mystery reads like a comic version of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
Through it all, Gwen and Iris are what kept me reading: their resourcefulness, determination, defence of the innocent, and the comic antics of their disguises, impersonations, and machinations on Dickie’s behalf. Add their behemoth occasional assistant, Sally, aka Salvatore Danielli, who was “behind-enemy-lines” during the war and spends his time strong-arming their nonpaying clients while writing his supreme theatrical oeuvre, and Montclair hits all the right notes in an accomplished début mystery.
Montclair’s mystery is adept and compelling, but what I loved above all about The Right Sort of Man was Gwen and Iris’s backstories and how they led to their growth and, parallel to that, Gwen and Iris’s deepening friendship in conversations of great humour, warmth, and wit. Gwen, for one, is still grieving, though not at crisis point, and at the mercy of her powerful in-laws. She experienced a breakdown at her husband’s death and they hold her “fragile state” over her in the form of custody of her son, Ronnie junior. I loved how Gwen gained in confidence and healing. Iris, on the other hand, has a what-I-did-in-the-war vulnerability that manifests in self-destructive ways. In the end, I loved how Gwen calls her on it, making for one of the tenderest, most ruefully funny scenes of friendship cemented I’ve read in forever. It should be noted that these under-narratives of seriousness do not detract from Montclair’s comic hand, but are woven in, which works all the better for her novel. I can’t wait for the next one, A Royal Affair, coming in June, and not fast enough for me.
Allison Montclair’s The Right Sort of Man is published by Minotaur Books. I purchased an e-book when it was on sale a few months? ago. Now, I’ll have to order the paperback to add to the DIK shelf.