I read Montclair’s A Rogue’s Company with a relish I did not experience with #2, A Royal Affair, though I obviously loved the series from its début, The Right Sort Of Man. I enjoyed A Rogue’s Company because Montclair (pseudonym for Alan Gordon) returned to giving us more of the characters’ lives and histories. Montclair is not one to write much of his characters’ inner lives, but providing us with more of their motivations and histories made for a better book than his sophomore effort. (Not exactly “sophomore”: let it be said that Gordon wrote tons of mysteries under his real name and A Royal Affair is “sophomore” only for his Montclair persona.)
In A Rogue’s Company, our two match-making amateur detectives, Mrs. Gwen Bainbridge and Miss Iris Sparks, are approached for a match by a Black man. They’re nonplussed because their connections stop at White and English-born, but they’re keen to expand the business and offer services to a diverse clientele. It was a good move on Montclair’s part to create a mystery with some sense of London’s post-WWII diversity, but prejudice and racism are only surface-skimmed. This is crime fiction of the, if not cozy, light variety, well-written, witty, with likeable characters. The back-cover blurb will provide some of the plot details:
In London, 1946, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting on its feet and expanding. Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge are making a go of it. That is until Lord Bainbridge—the widowed Gwen’s father-in-law and legal guardian—returns from a business trip to Africa and threatens to undo everything important to her, even sending her six-year-old son away to a boarding school.
But there’s more going on than that. A new client shows up at the agency, one whom Sparks and Bainbridge begin to suspect really has a secret agenda, somehow involving the Bainbridge family. A murder and a subsequent kidnapping sends Sparks to seek help from a dangerous quarter—and now their very survival is at stake.
While the blurb leans to the dramatic, A Rogue’s Company has a flat, matter-of-fact tone with matter-of-fact protagonists. For me, the most dramatic aspect of the novels is Gwen’s struggle with her in-laws to regain custody of her son. To provide some background, not a spoiler because this is evident from the first book, when Gwen’s husband, Ronald, was killed in the war, her grief was so intense her in-laws had her declared incompetent and gained custody of Ronnie Jr. What A Rogue’s Company further reveals to us is what terrible people they are: and yet, one of Montclair’s strengths is how nuanced he creates them. In many ways, odious; in others, understandably flawed and human. Gwen, on the other hand, is a character who carries a wonderful growth arc, becoming stronger with every novel. She remains compassionate and loving, but more confident in her abilities and readings. If it were only for Gwen, I would continue to read the series.
I do love Sparks too with her tainted past and guilty conscience. We don’t learn as much about her as we do Gwen in this latest in the series, but I hope Montclair remedies that. Iris has a Kate-Quinn-Alice-Network-ish past and I’d love to see Montclair dig deeper into her history. What makes the series great, however, are not these two characters individually, but their friendship, kind of stiff-upper-lip English and quipping to hide affection, but steadfast and loyal; their banter is as amusing as any romance protagonists.
Other than his two marvelous protagonists, Montclair navigates several “worlds”: the fading upper crust in the Bainbridges; the post-war, more modern world in Iris; and, in Iris’s boyfriend and his cronies, a gangster world of petty and major crime. When Lord Bainbridge makes his appearance on the scene, we have yet another “world”, that of the beginning of the end of the British Empire and its pernicious colonialism. One of Montclair’s strengths is how he makes the ethos of gangster and colonialist pretty much the same. The gangsters, however, while they’re a lot of fun at times are also cartoonish and not-terribly believable. What is believable is the wit and wisdom of Gwen and Iris, their deep moral sense, their ability to see through to the heart of things, and their love for their work and little Ronnie, who’s as marvelous a little-boy character as I’ve read. I want him firmly in his mother’s custody, drawing narwhals and partaking, at least safely, in the continued adventures of Sparks and Bainbridge, who are truly the “right sort”.
Allison Montclair’s A Rogue’s Company is published by Minotaur Books. It was released in June of this year and may be found at your preferred vendors (if you haven’t read the first two books, I’d start there). I received an e-galley of A Rogue’s Company, via Netgalley, from Minotaur Books, for the purpose of writing this review.