Title: Murder In Belgravia: A secret group of detectives solving crime in the seedy underbelly of World War 1 London
Author: Lynn Brittney
Series: Mayfair 100 #1
Set against the backdrop of WW1, Mayfair 100 is the telephone number for a small specially-formed crimebusting team based in a house in Mayfair. London, 1915. Just 10 months into the First World War, the City is flooded with women taking over the work vacated by men in the Armed Services. Chief Inspector Peter Beech, a young man invalided out of the war in one of the first battles, is faced with investigating the murder of an aristocrat and the man’s wife, a key witness and suspect, will only speak to a woman about the unpleasant details of the case. After persuading the Chief Commissioner to allow him to set up a clandestine team to deal with such situations, Beech puts together a small motley crew of well-educated women and professional policemen. As Beech, Victoria, Caroline, Rigsby, and Tollman investigate the murder, they delve into the seedier parts of WWI London, taking them from criminal gangs to brothels and underground drug rings supplying heroin to the upper classes. Will the Mayfair 100 team solve the murder? And if they do, will they be allowed to continue working as a team?
Grimdark cozy-mysteries are apparently a thing now. Often cozies are rather clean: the victim wasn’t a good person anyway. The only bad things that ever happened were because of the victim (and possibly the killer). Once the murderer is caught everything is fine again. Or at the very least the (well-adjusted) sleuth has figured out the perfect way to help the person who is still suffering. (To be clear: I don’t mind that. We all need a bit of escapism now and then and many people, myself included, find that in cozies.)
There are cozies that try to break that mold. They use a set-up that is more a cozy than ‘serious’ crime novel but don’t shy away from the fact that there are issues like addiction or racism, you can’t solve in 300 pages. Some are rather subtle about it and/or don’t want to go too deep into it (and while I frequently proclaim my love for the Lady Daisy mysteries, I do wish in a 20+ book series there’d been more than one gay couple and 3 or 4 POC-characters. Though the way she deals with the fallout and consequences of WWI is done very well).
This book has no such qualms. The set-up, with an unofficial team with one-half cops one-half amateurs, is something you’d expect in a cozy. But two of the protagonists are veterans who were seriously injured in the war. The story itself involves sexual assault, PTSD, addiction, pedophilia, and prostitution. Oh and the whole book is set during World War One, and halfway through the story, London is bombed. I had almost forgotten about that, which tells you all about the impact it had on me. But sentences like “Billy explained all about the damage, the dead bodies, the smoke, fire, explosions and general horror he had experienced.” don’t evoke many emotions in me. But throughout the book, the prose is like this: bland, unemotional and no character has a distinct voice.
And even if that wasn’t an issue: the book crams all these horrors into it and features some characters that suffered terribly but they find the perfect solution for all of them. And they all lived happily ever after. I just can’t buy this after tons of misery were piled on them.
And because all this isn’t enough, the book reads like it was written by an author who thinks her readers are really stupid. There is no other reason why the most obvious facts are explained at length and why information is repeated over and over again. Like when one character discovers something and then instead of a simple ‘And then he told X what he discovered that morning’ we get half a page of ‘And then he told X about event A, discovery B, and event C’. Despite the fact that we just read about A, B and C in the previous chapter.
On another occasion, two characters visit a lawyer because they wish to see a document. The lawyer, being a lawyer is reluctant at first but can be convinced that this would be in his client’s interest. Still, he is aware that he shouldn’t really be doing this so he asks one of the characters to leave the room with him to look at a painting. Anybody who has ever consumed any form of fiction now knows what is happening there. The book feels the need to explain to us that “she was being asked to leave the room with Sir Arnold on a pretext so that Beech could look at the documents on the desk.”
Something else? Oh, right the premise of this book is an unofficial police team with women (before they were allowed in the police-force) that deals with cases where e.g. a witness doesn’t want to talk with a man. For that, the men in it were often pretty sexist. And of course, those were different times and having heroes with suspiciously modern views is not the best solution. But neither is not doing anything. The men are happy because women have their “curves in all the right places” or because “being a bodyguard and making arrests appealed to his strong sense of masculinity” and have questionable views on women’s rights, votes for women etc. and all this goes unchallenged. At no point had the characters a serious discussion about this. At no point did I have the impression that the author weighed in on it. She just wrote down what the men said and thought.
ARC received from NetGalley