…and possibly my favourite of the series (#1 is marvellous too). Montclair takes the narrative threads set up in book one, The Right Sort of Man, and brings them to some resolution. In The Unkept Woman, Iris Sparks finally reckons with her past and Gwen Bainbridge gains in strength and resolve, which go a long way to bring her closer to regaining custody of her finances and son (as we learn from book one, Gwen had what would be deemed in post-war England a “nervous breakdown” and was declared “incompetent” [legal term] losing custody of her son, Ronnie, and finances, given over to her conservative, draconian in-laws. Gwen’s emotional collapse came at the death of her husband, Ronald Bainbridge, in WWII). But in the latest volume, Sparks’ past returns: she is the eponymous “unkept woman”, having broken off from the married man she’d been having an affair with, on and off, during and post war-time intelligence training and action. But things are more complicated than what I’ve described so far.
The latest volume opens with a visit from Polish emigrée Helena Jablonska seeking Iris and Gwen’s Right Sort Marriage Bureau matchmaking services. Two days later, Helena is found shot dead in Iris’s apartment and Gwen and Iris are back on the sleuthing path, accompanied by their partner-in-sleuthing, Salvatore Danielli, “Sally” to his friends, a giant playwright who, like Iris, played a role in war-time intelligence; add the “usual suspects” to the mix: the hilarious, loveable servants of Gwen’s household, really her in-laws’ household but their hearts lie with Gwen, Iris, and the irrepressible Ronnie; Iris’s occasional amour, “spiv” Archie Spelling; a new assortment of post-war Polish emigrés embittered by Yalta, mysterious MI6 figures, and the return of Detective Mike Kinsey of Scotland Yard, Iris’s the one-who-got-away. Truly a marvellous assortment.
The series’ strengths are many: in this case, even better pacing, which kept me glued, seamlessly integrated historical detail, a wonderful combination of consistent, unifying narrative threads with a unique storyline in the murder and its resolution, great “banterish” dialogue, and, of course, the emotionally-engaging characters.
Most of all, to put it simply, I adore Gwen and Iris because they are simultaneously vulnerable and strong. And they share that most precious of relationships, a friendship; even more than the historical detail, intrepid adventures, and love interests, the Sparks and Bainbridge mystery series is about a wonderful partnership and friendship between two woman. And it isn’t the sappy WF kind: it’s playful, fun, and banter-filled, but no less supportive and deeply-felt. A passage encompassing these qualities is the conversation between Gwen and Iris as Iris confesses to Gwen the latest mess she’s landed in thanks to the return of her married lover and his possible connection to the mysterious Helena, RIP:
“Keep going. Tell me I’m a failure and a coward and that I deserve to live a lonely life and die alone and be found half eaten by an excessive number of cats who only pretended to love me because I fed them.”
“Wait, I need to write all that down,” said Gwen as Iris threw herself facedown on her bed. “What have you failed at?”
“Everything,” said Iris.
“Move over,” said Gwen, climbing onto the bed next to her. “What brought this on?”
“Your mother-in-law’s whiskey.”
“And what brought that on?”
The entire novel is suffused with this combination of pathos and wit. Witness the following passage where Iris expresses how fed up she is with her spying war-work interfering with her present life:
“All I want is to bring lonely people together for the lifetime of love that has been denied me. I don’t want death and subterfuge dogging my footsteps everywhere I go. I want to show up at the office at nine o’clock Monday morning and find that Gwen has beaten me there yet again to regale me with Little Ronnie’s latest. And when the workday is done, I want to go back to my own flat and curl up with a good book or a bad man.”
Other than to “regale” you with how well-written and fun the dialogue is, this passage also illustrates one of the themes I most appreciate about the series: how Gwen and Iris, representative of the war-wounded (it’s not only combat veterans war injures) work to regain a sense of normality, of a life no longer lived on an emotional “edge”. Montclair brings this theme home in a “show-not-tell” way by having, throughout the four volumes (digits crossed there will be more), Gwen’s and Iris’s sessions with a therapist, Dr. Milford, a sympathetic, perspicacious figure and cause for more terrifically-rendered dialogue.
In sum, if you haven’t read the series, go to book one and start now; if you have, don’t miss out on the latest (releasing today). In Miss Austen’s more eloquent words, The Unkept Woman is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
I am grateful to Minotaur Books for an opportunity to read and review an e-galley of The Unkept Woman, offered via Netgalley.