Murder in the Afternoon by Frances Brody
When I was young, I was something of an expert on accents. In those days, it was possible to tell which local town or part of the city a person came from just by listening to the way he or she talked. The use of colloquialisms and dialect vocabulary was a giveaway. Sine my cousins lived in Wakefield and the relatively nearby Horbury, I also got the chance to listen to Yorkshire accents. I got to the point when I could reliably tell the difference between Yorkshire and Lancashire, but never refined it beyond that. Today, the pernicious influence of mass media has homogenized the way people speak. Although broad indicators remain to identify class and region, all the old certainties have gone. Some may say this is a good thing. Back in the 1950s, people were discriminated against based on their accents. Today’s discriminations are slightly less obvious in the way they operate.
Murder in the Afternoon by Frances Brody (a pseudonym of Frances McNeil) (Minotaur Books, 2014) is a British import to American shores. It’s set in the Yorkshire of 1923 and is the third to feature Kate Shackleton, a woman whose husband is missing presumed dead in World War I. She’s now making a living for herself as a private investigator—not an easy path to follow given the sexism of the era in which the majority of men think the woman’s place is in the home. A part of the interest in reading the prose is to “hear” the flat vowel sounds of many of the characters we meet. Although the book wisely refrains from excessive reproduction of some of the accented speaking we would have heard in the day, the rhythms of the prose are indelibly northern. Adding to the interest are some of the vocabulary choices. It’s good to see some of the older words coming back to life. Since I happen to be reading the American edition, I don’t think the British English should be a problem. It should always be obvious from the context what the words mean.
Putting the theme of discrimination behind us (spunky woman proving she’s just as capable as the men when it comes to work as a detective), the main theme of the book is the strength of relationships and the importance of families. Even though she considers herself a widow, she still clings to the idea of being married to her missing husband. It’s one of the reasons why she’s having to think very carefully about whether she wants to remarry. Another reason for hesitating is the current man’s refusal to relate to her as an equal. He’s Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Marcus Charles, a man who can take pride in the Yard’s attempts to recruit women to the force while patronisingly refusing to understand how much they might be able to contribute to the law enforcement function. As an aside, I should mention Kate was adopted at birth by a high-ranking Yorkshire police officer and his aristocratic wife. This is relevant for two reasons. Kate is able to trade on the family connection to persuade local people to talk to her. It also provides a model for what life might be like if she married Charles. Her adoptive mother is highly capable, but the only real excitement in her life comes when she makes a doubled contract at the bridge table. Kate fears she might be forced to leave Yorkshire and give up her own work to avoid any conflict of interest. It might be lonely and frustrating in London.
She’s woken by a desperate woman knocking at her door. She claims to be Kate’s sister and wants Kate to find her husband who’s gone missing. Although Kate has always known she was adopted, this is the first contact with her natural family and it somewhat unsettles her to discover she has a large, previously invisible, family. The book then charts the investigation. From the outset, ten-year-old Harriet insists she found her father dead in the quarry where he worked as a stone mason. But when the child returned with help, there was no sign of a body. Her story was dismissed as lies. The locals know the marriage was not on a happy basis and assume he’s run off. Complicating the scenario is the missing man’s politics and union activities. He’s been labelled a communist and there’s a Special Branch file open on him because there has been talk of him standing for Parliament as a Labour candidate. Locally, the man has also been in conflict with the local quarry operator and landowner. Many will be glad he’s gone.
So this is as much a personal journey into her past as it is a contemporary investigation. Kate must make necessary emotional adjustments as she first confirms the woman who appeared on her doorstep is her sister, and later when she meets her natural mother. The missing brother-in-law has, of course, been murdered so this ups the ante, particularly when the potential husband arrives from London to take charge of the case. The case is a direct parallel to her own experience. Her own husband’s body has never been identified. Now her sister’s husband has disappeared. When his body is later found, Kate feels more responsibility to track down his killer. The presence of Charles also forces her to confront her feelings about his patriarchal view of the world. Her decision as to whether to marry him has been postponed to the next book. Also left for future books is the relationship with the newly emerged family (which does prove to be more extensive than she first thought). There’s a lot left unresolved. The mystery itself is an interesting piece of misdirection which leaves the solution a reasonably plausible surprise. It had not been a scenario I had been thinking about although the facts are all there in plain sight. So both as a historical study of family life in the 1920s and as a murder mystery, Murder in the Afternoon proves a most satisfying read.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.