I have droned on and on, to your great boredom, about how I love romance and how my second love is the mystery-romance-historical combo, like Deanna Raybourn, or Susanna Kearsley, C. S. Harris, Jennifer Ashley … *sobs* and the no-longer-writing-new-Renegades-of-the-Revolution Donna Thorland. Let’s face it, I love the hybrids as much as I love romance, so let’s let that second love thing die. Now, with Tessa Arlen’s first in A Woman of WWII series, I’m adding another much-anticipated series to the beloved list. Given the stay-at-home state of things, Arlen’s Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders made for the perfect comfort read: with a Christie-Foyle’s-War-inspired English village + eccentrics setting and intrepid, engaging, loveable heroine, the eponymous Poppy, a too-charming-for-his-and-Poppy’s-own-good American Army Air Force hero … and no less than a Midsommer Murders corps of village-body-count! While I toiled away at WFH and dabbed lipstick for Zoom meetings, I enjoyed, in the time-interstices, my reading of Poppy, her American hero, and their joint sleuthing.
When the novel opens, Poppy is the midst of a London-air-raid, the last of her training as an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden. She brings her new-found status and expertise to Chiltern’s Little Buffenden, where she lives with her grandparents, herds an array of eccentric villagers in air-raid drills with her loyal, stalwart, and heroic dog-companion, Bess, and becomes intertwined with the newly-arrived American Army Air Force pilots, whose base is on her grandfather’s temporarily-donated farm, Reaches. Not long after Poppy’s arrival, two young village women, Doreen Newcombe and Ivy Wantage, are murdered (Poppy finds Ivy’s body while on patrol) and Poppy with the ever-vigilant Bess are on the case, soon joined by the California-born, exemplary-cook and irresistibly-handsome Lieutenant Griff O’Neal, Poppy’s love interest.
There are sundry reasons why I loved Arlen’s Poppy and Poppy, but the one that has to stand out is the writing. A writer can have great ideas, premises, twisty tropes, but nought can come of them if the writing isn’t adept, or the pacing tight and focussed. Arlen excels at the former and wavers on the latter. But the characters are so lovingly drawn and developped I couldn’t help but be charmed by the novel throughout. Here are mere snippets that drew me in from the start. Poppy recounts her first impressions of Griff: ” … tall, over six feet, but all Americans are tall, aren’t they? … the closest feature in my line of vision was his mouth, smiling widely over teeth of film-star-white evenness.” Who can resist a heroine who is both funny and strives for justice and right?: “my young years still have me fighting for every injustice, a ready champion for a lost cause.” Poppy’s observation of the mama’s boy Home Guard officer, Sid, tasked with protecting her on her nightly air-raid-curtain inspection: “He is an earnest young man who suffers from a complete deficit of wit.” Love, justice, and a sexy lieutenant, what more does a mystery-romance novel need? Well, a dog who steals every scene, that’s what. Bessie only adds to Arlen’s engaging tale. (I know, I know, punning is the lowest form of wit, but Shakespeare … )
Arlen builds some great tension between the newly-arrived Americans and the natives, all in good fun, and provides an opposites-attract counterpoint to Poppy in Griff O’Neal. She’s justice and dry humour to his sharp, ebullient wits and expansive American bonhomie. Some of my favourite scenes are Griff’s taking-over Poppy’s grandparents’ kitchen after Jasper and Alice Redfern begin a tradition of bringing the Americans and select villagers together for a Sunday lunch. Their peace-making efforts bear fruit and a great roast beef when everyone gets to enjoy Griff’s superior culinary skills, even Bess: “He looked up from basting the beef; the smell was sensational. My mouth watered, and Bess made a wistful moaning sound deep in her throat.” No doubt Poppy would join Bess at the sight of muscled-gorgeousness in her kitchen, but she is a diffident English woman after all. Though Poppy has an alter ego who wouldn’t hesitate to jump the American’s bones any less than Bess would gnaw at the beef’s. Poppy is writing a Blitz-set murder mystery novel, starring the intrepid, knowing Ilona Linthwaite, who serves as the “voice” in Poppy’s head and alter ego, advising, encouraging, at times admonishing any timidity with men or murderers.
My moues of disappointment? Though I’m not one of those readers who guesses the murderer, too engrossed in the characters and their relationships and making notes on the writing to pay that kind of attention, I did guess this one. It didn’t take anything from my enjoyment, but you may care about this. I don’t. I thought Poppy did a weird aboutface on Griff, out of caution and insecurity, that spoiled the romance. Again, a niggling point given the HEA! The mystery itself lagged, maybe because Arlen created such great secondary characters (love the vicar!) and took much narrative time doing so, but this is something, again, I don’t mind. If you love a tightly-paced mystery, you might grow impatient. I didn’t, wanted MOAR Griff, Poppy, and Bessie. All in all, I loved Poppy and the Midnight Murders and can’t wait to read Poppy, Griff, and Bess’s next adventure. With Miss Austen, we say Arlen’s series start is indicative of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Tessa Arlen’s Poppy and the Midnight Murders is published by Berkley Prime Crime. It was released in November 2019 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from Berkley, via Netgalley.