Jessica Fellowes, I discovered, after picking up this book, wrote ‘companion books’ for the popular Downton Abbey TV series. It seems to be an indication that the author and journalist is a fan of history and enjoys researching times-gone-by – which is very evident in her latest novel The Mitford Murders.
And something I hadn’t appreciated until I actually reached the end of this book, was that it’s a form of ‘faction’…. facts mixed with fiction. Or fictionalised facts. Or something.
The Mitford Murders
by Jessica Fellowes
Series: The Mitford Murders #1
on September 12th 2017
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction
It's 1919, and Louisa Cannon dreams of escaping her life of poverty in London, and most of all her oppressive and dangerous uncle.
Louisa's salvation is a position within the Mitford household at Asthall Manor, in the Oxfordshire countryside. There she will become nurserymaid, chaperone and confidante to the Mitford sisters, especially sixteen-year-old Nancy - an acerbic, bright young woman in love with stories.
But then a nurse - Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of her famous namesake - is killed on a train in broad daylight, and Louisa and Nancy find themselves entangled in the crimes of a murderer who will do anything to hide their secret . . .
I usually avoid historical fiction like the proverbial black plague… (see what I did there?)
However, although I haven’t read any of the Miss Fisher Murder Series by Kerry Greenwood but I LOVE the TV show (esp. Phryne Fisher Lady Detective herself!) and am a huge fan of good ole’ Miss Marple, so figured – since this is apparently the first in this new series – I’d jump on board the first carriage and see where the books take me. (And I’ll stop mixing my metaphors now.)
Louisa Cannon is not your typical crime-solving heroine. Indeed, when we meet her, she’s spending her time helping out her washer-woman mother and being forced (by her uncle) to partake in the occasional pickpocketing spree. Uncle Stephen is an unsavoury type and her mother offers little assistance or intervention, so Louisa falls into the nursery maid gig at the Mitfords just in the nick of time.
A couple of coincidences result in her interest in the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore (who I later discovered was: a real person; the god-daughter of THE Florence Nightgale; and REALLY killed on Monday 12 January 1920). Louise’s interest in the case is encouraged (or rather forced upon her) by Nancy Mitford who’s just 16yrs old when this book opens.
I did initially think it may be Nancy who takes the lead on the murder investigation as she’s got some spunk, is savvy and naturally inquisitive. Louisa (who’s 18 when we first meet her) comes across as less ambitious, not particularly enigmatic and a ‘behind-the-scenes’ type. Of course I realise that’s more about her ‘class’ and her position than her natural personality and we see her develop a little throughout the book.
Louisa meets railway police officer Guy Sullivan early in the novel. He’s ambitious and yearns to join the ‘real’ police so, when Florence Nightingale Shore’s case goes cold, Guy continues investigating the murder himself. With occasional assistance (and encouragement) from Louisa and Nancy.
As I mentioned it wasn’t until I’d finished this book that I also discovered that the Mitford family, indeed… the Mitford girls were quite famous. Or notorious.
Fellowes includes some references for those inquisitive types. My basic googling found a 2016 Vanity Fair article pondering the enduring allure of the Mitford Sisters, suggesting:
What elevated the Mitfords above the prattle and privileges of their upbringing and put their reputation on a collision course with history was the fissure in the household between the two raging ideologies that would rip apart the 20th century: Fascism and Communism.
I enjoyed this book though it didn’t feel like it quite hit the mark. It’s well written and researched, touching on a lot of issues of the time – just after WWI – including the impact of war on those fighting and those left behind, the position of women (their lack of formal schooling), the class system as well as families and relationships. There’s some reference (for example) early on to Lord Redesdale (David Mitford, Nancy’s father) and his ascension to head of the family following the death of his older brother – providing his brother’s wife did not have a son. (And I was confused as to whether she did and there were any nefarious dealings there!)
Interestingly Guy’s character was well developed, and though I liked Nancy and Louisa, they didn’t feel as consistent as they could have been. On one hand Nancy has some sass and ignores societal norms, but on the other she acts a bit like a spoiled brat and pulls rank on Louisa every so often.
The plot itself was intriguing and Fellowes offers up a few red herrings by introducing events taking place during the war, just years earlier and we’re privy to letters the murder victim sent home while she was posted overseas.
This is billed as The Mitford Murders No. 1, so I was initially figuring the books would be about Louisa, and they may be…. or… they may focus on Nancy. Or headline other sisters. Each seem to have their own unique talents, personalities and idiosyncrasies. Either way, this is a solid start and I’m intrigued about where Fellowes may take the series.
The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes was published in Australia by Hachette and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publishers for review purposes.