Tag Archives: Historical fiction

The Sign of the Devil by Oscar de Muriel

Hello! Before I begin, I must apologise for the lack of reviews in recent weeks. I am suffering from a bad back injury that has made reading and concentrating very difficult. I am beginning to start to feel hopeful that I might be on the mend! So keep everything crossed. I have turned to audiobooks, which, as they have done in the past, provide comfort and company. I have finished a few books over August as a result and so the reviewing should pick up from now on. Excuses over, on with the review!

The Sign of the Devil by Oscar de MurielThe Sign of the Devil by Oscar de Muriel

Orion | 2022 (4 August) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

Evil has returned to Victorian Edinburgh. Body snatchers are busier than ever, feeding the frenzy for autopsy theatre. But one night the body snatchers are disturbed and the corpse is recovered, a mark of the devil on its skin. It had not been there before. That same night a patient is murdered in Edinburgh’s lunatic asylum. An identical symbol is marked on the walls. The prime suspect is a young woman, another inmate, indeed considered possessed. She is Amy (or Pansy) McGray, found guilty of killing her parents with an axe, also wounding her brother, Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray. It is up to McGray, and his long-suffering former associate Inspector Ian Frey, to prove her innocence, right the wrongs of the past and solve the mystery of the sign of the devil.

The Frey and McGray series has been a joy to read over the last few years. Surely, these are the most perfect examples of Victorian melodrama and mystery. Sadly, with this, the seventh novel, the series comes to an end. It is very much a conclusion to the series, looking back to the beginning and coming to terms with the event that has cast a shadow from the start – the murder of McGray’s family and the confinement of his sister, now mute and troubled. All of which means that this is not a stand alone novel, nor is it the one to start with. INstead, go back to the beginning and Strings of Murder.

I love these characters. The very tartan McGray and the extremely English Frey are a great double act. Much of the time we see McGray through Frey’s eyes and his exasperation, and McGray’s constant teasing, are hugely entertaining. These are dark books, dealing with diabolical crimes, but they are also very funny.

There has always been an element of the supernatural in these novels. McGray is a firm believer in such things as devils and witches and he always gets the unsolvable cases that nobody else wants. Frey is the opposite. He believes in logic and deduction. But combined they have a habit of working things out. They also have a habit of getting stabbed. Frey is especially scarred by their earlier cases. No wonder he’s not keen to work with McGray again. But there is something about McGray’s sister that pulls these two men together to clear her name.

I love the depiction of Victorian Edinburgh. I don’t know the city and so can’t vouch for the accuracy but it is so atmospherically drawn, by night and by day. The surrounding countryside seems both beautiful and threatening and the grand houses hide sinister secrets. The crimes are gruesome. It is also a place of science and education.

The Sign of the Devil brings the series to a satisfactory conclusion. If you’ve not read any of the books, then this is the perfect time to start, knowing that it’s complete. I will miss Ian and Nine-Nails. I’m also intrigued to see where the author, the very talented Oscar de Muriel, turns his attention next.

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows
The Loch of the Dead

The Darker Arts
The Dance of the Serpents

The Wall by Douglas Jackson

Bantam Press | 2022 (9 June) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is AD 400 and the Roman Empire is disintegrating and, outside of the city of Rome itself, nowhere is this more apparent than on the empire’s fringes. Hadrian’s Wall was built almost 300 years before, several of the forts along this border even earlier. And now it decays. Prefect Marcus Flavius Victor is Lord of the Wall, a title inherited from his heroic father, and he’s earned it in his own right. He’s feared and admired by his own men and also by the tribes across the Wall who sense that the Romans no longer have the power to defend the Wall. As Marcus works to rebuild morale, men, buildings and resources along the Wall, the tribes stir.

But what does Marcus actually want? He, too, can see the cards on the table. Does he fight to hold the Wall for Rome or does he have a personal ambition? And what about the rival tribes in the northern lands? Who do they fight for?

Douglas Jackson writes the most stunning and insightful Roman military fiction. I’ve read and loved all of his novels. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him talk about them at events and he knows his stuff. His novels have taken him across the Roman empire but they are at their very best when set in Britannia – everyone who loves historical fiction should read Hero of Rome. This is one of my favourite novels of all time and one of the few I’ve read more than once. In The Wall, the author, a Scot, travels even closer to home and examines the breakdown of empire and its final fury in the borders, an area he clearly knows very well.

The Wall is set at an unusual time. Douglas Jackson’s earlier novels are set in the first century of the empire, around the time of the Claudian conquest of Britain. Now we’ve moved on about 350 years and that is such a long time! This is not the same Britannia. But the Romans we find in this novel hail from across the empire. They are such a varied bunch. They are the result of four centuries of conquest. They have views about the past and it has to affect their actions now as they face the barbarians across the Wall.

I love the stories and people that populate The Wall and we move across it to visit the quarrelsome tribes. There are women as well as men, they are deadlier, perhaps. The novel is a journey of sorts along the forts and settlements of Hadrian’s Wall, all places filled with memories. At the centre of it all is the charismatic Marcus, who is prepared to fight his superiors for what he needs to secure the Wall. You can almost see the transfer of power before our eyes, from the authority of the government to the might of the Lord of the Wall.

This is a fascinating period, not often covered, and Jackson portrays it impeccably. There is a great deal of action and some of it is marked by the violence that would have characterised life on this lethal border. The Wall is immersive and entertaining, and it opened my eyes to a whole new period of life and death along such a well-known monument.

I can also recommend Douglas Jackson’s mystery thrillers, written as James Douglas (links below)!

Other reviews and features
Caligula
Claudius
Hero of Rome
Defender of Rome
Avenger of Rome
Sword of Rome
Enemy of Rome
Scourge of Rome
Saviour of Rome
Glory of Rome

Hammer of Rome
An interview

Writing as James Douglas
The Doomsday Testament
The Isis Covenant
The Excalibur Codex
The Samurai Inheritance

The House with the Golden Door by Elodie Harper

Head of Zeus | 2022 (12 May) | 400p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Roman city of Pompeii is enjoying its heydey and life is looking good for Amara, who once worked as a prostitute in the city’s most infamous and famous brother, the Wolf Den. She has been rescued by a wealthy man and he is now the only man she serves as one of Pompeii’s most glamorous courtesans. But she can’t leave her friends there behind. She is haunted by their continued suffering while being all too well that her own good fortune is transient. And so Amara sets out to help them, especially her closest friend Victoria, and that means she must go back into the wolf’s lair.

The Wolf Den was my favourite novel of 2021. It brought the streets and houses of Pompeii to life for me in a way no other book has done. I’ve visited the place often and I’ll never see it with the same eyes again thanks to the power of Elodie Harper’s prose and research. I was so pleased that there is more and so I couldn’t wait for The House with the Golden Door. Even before I started reading, I was stunned by the beauty of the cover. These are seriously gorgeous books!

The novels are set during the few years leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius. The fact that we know what lies in store adds such a sense of foreboding and I can’t help hoping that the author takes us right up to these events. But the novels don’t miss the drama of the eruption. Instead, the focus is on the daily lives of these damaged women, as well as on the men who own them, the men who love them and all of the other people who tread these streets as shop workers, slaves, business men, courtesans, inn keepers. I love it.

I think any novel is bound to suffer by comparison with The Wolf Den which, to my mind, is nigh on perfect. The fact that Amara has been removed from that awful brothel of the first novel, a major character in its own right, detracts a little from the power of the second. I also found the storyline involving Victoria difficult. Nevertheless, The House with the Golden Door is an excellent novel and once more it is filled with the details that make these novels stand out. There are so few good novels about Roman women or society in general. This was indeed a man’s world. And it is wonderful to immerse oneself in their stories, although everything about Amara’s life and her past is so hard. But there are moments of joy and happiness and I feel like we’re there with her for it all.

Once more, I should point out that these novels are not salacious or erotic. These might be courtesans and prostitutes but they’re also enslaved women living in a city full of life and colour as well as violence and threat. I can’t wait for the third book. I need to know what happens to Amara next. I’m hoping that in the meantime I can return to this incredible place in person myself.

Other review
The Wolf Den

The Capsarius by Simon Turney

Head of Zeus | 2022 (14 April) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It 25 BC and Egypt is not what it once was. Pharaoh-less, it is ruled by Romans, hungry for its wealth and resources. The Queen of the Kush, far to the South, also has her eye on it and that means trouble. The 22nd legion is sent up the Nile to deal with the Queen’s army and raiders and among it is Titus Cervianus, an army medic and scientist who has the distinction of being both extremely talented at mending people while being incredibly unpopular and picked upon. It doesn’t help that he finds himself friends with one of the legion’s troublemakers, Ulyxes. As they travel deeper into Egypt, there is danger everywhere, from within the legion, from terrifying enemy fighters, and from the Nile itself, which thrashes with crocodiles.

I love a Roman military adventure and have read many of them over the years. The Capsarius is such a fine example for lots of reasons, not least its author, Simon Turney. What he doesn’t know about the Roman world and its military engine isn’t worth knowing. The amount of research he does for each of his books (fiction and non-fiction) is extraordinary and all of that means that you can enjoy his novels while also feeling that you’re learning something.

The setting of The Capsarius is fantastic and it is effectively a military tour up the Nile at a time with the wonders of ancient Egypt are fading but are still marvelled at and have a power to awe. Temples are described in beautiful detail that captures the enigma of Egyptian religion and architecture. I’ve visited many of these places myself on a leisurely cruise up the Nile and the novel brought back memories of the colour and heat of middle and southern Egypt.

But this is a dangerous place for Cervianus, not least because his fellow soldiers keep wanting to kill him while the officers in charge make reckless decisions about their mission. Cervianus seems to reel from one disaster to the next, while all of the time the legion is plagued by attack, the hostile environment, the heat, and then there are the crocodiles. I’m rather glad there were none of those on my cruise. Unfortunately, the crocodiles seem to like nothing better than the taste of a sweaty Roman soldier.

Cervianus’ medical knowledge is called upon with alarming regularity and the detail of his progressive methods is both fascinating and, I have to say, gory. But there is something really appealing about Cervianus. He is an entertaining and true companion, loyal, very unlucky and clever. Despite being widely unliked, he does find friends in strange places, including among the native Egyptian auxiliaries, who are fascinating in their own right.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of an unusual man and his exploits on the trail of the Kush queen’s army. The descriptions of the Nile and the legacy of its pharaonic past are wonderful as the army moves further and further away from Alexandria ad the familiar. Simon Turney knows his stuff and the fascinating detail and insight makes this novel stand out. If you love Romans and the ancient world, you’ll love this.

Other reviews (also writes as S.J.A. Turney)
Caligula
Commodus
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
Writing historical locations – a guest post
With Gordon Doherty – Sons of Rome

A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear

Allison & Busby | 2022 (22 March) | 375p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1942 and the Americans have joined the war. With many men away from home, American GIs are helping out in English fields, keeping things going, making friends, falling in love. Women are working alongside them, including female pilots who collect and deliver planes across the country. One of them has a shock when she realises that there is someone on the ground firing at her plane from a barn. When she goes to investigate, she finds a terrified tied-up black American GI who says he had not been kept alone. His friend, a white man, had been taken away, probably to be shot. The army immediately judge him a guilty man. It is up to private detective Maisie Dobbs to discover the truth and clear the soldier’s name before he is transported back to the US. Maisie, married to an American, is better aware than most of the differences between the two nations and of the paramount importance that nothing destroys the relationship between them. Not everyone, it seems, agrees with that.

I am a huge fan of the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. A Sunlit Weapon is the seventeenth in the series. I haven’t read them all yet (I discovered them relatively recently, about 3 years ago) but I have enjoyed reading them whenever I can and I think I’ve now read about ten of them. So, while I don’t think you need to have read them all to enjoy A Sunlit Weapon, I would recommend that you read one or two, just so that you have a bit of an understanding of Maisie’s unusual background and her relationships, particularly with her assistant, with her husband and with her adopted daughter. Maisie’s been through some adventures over the last twenty years. She’s known tragedy and she’s also experienced the worst of mankind. But there is also love.

I am so fond of Maisie. She is practical, busy, helpful and loving. There is also an obstinacy to her. She will fight for what is right and she will persevere. She spends half of her time in London and the other half in the country, with her daughter Anna. But there are signs that this cannot continue indefinitely. Anna needs her. She is different from her schoolfriends and teachers. This is not a good time to be different. This is made more than apparent when Maisie takes on the case of the African-American GI.

I enjoy the spy element of these novels. Maisie has, in the past, gone undercover to complete some lethal missions. Those days are gone but she is still involved with individuals from the government, while her husband Mark is an important, somewhat shadowy figure at the American Embassy in London. His role now is to prepare the ground for the First Lady who is determined to visit England and encourage the GIs in person. There is a potential for disaster.

This isn’t fast crime fiction. In a way, it’s more of a saga, a leisurely investigation over multiple novels into the impact of the First World War, the rise of fascism and the Second World War on Maisie Dobbs and those she loves. It’s historical fiction more than crime and there are some fascinating glimpses into life in the early 1940s. The female pilots are especially admirable and charismatic. You can see why Maisie would be drawn to them. Discrimination is a clear theme of the series, whether it’s against women, foreigners or those of a different colour. This novel also provides an appealing portrait of the transformation of London by war but also by the influx of foreigners and new attitudes.

I was engrossed by A Sunlit Weapon and soon fell back into the cosy yet thoughtful world in which the author immerses the reader. I will always read these novels and, once more, look forward to Maisie’s return.

Other reviews
The American Agent
The Consequences of Fear

The Man in the Bunker by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2022 (20 January) | 476p | Review copy | Buy the book

The war is over and it is time for the guilty to pay for their atrocities. While the Nazis are rounded up, ready for trial and punishment, their leader is believed dead. He committed suicide in his bunker under Berlin’s bombed streets, his body burned. But did Hitler really die in the bunker. The American and British secret service suspect he escaped, their suspicions supported by a trail of strange and violent deaths in Germany. It is time once more for Tom Wilde, an American Professor of History at Cambridge University and reluctant spy, to head to Germany and follow the clues and trace the witnesses to the truth. But Wilde is not alone. He is paired with Dutch soldier Mozes Heck, who has his own agenda and it could get both of them killed.

The Tom Wilde series is one of the very best being written today and I have been a huge fan of it from its beginning. Rory Clements is an excellent writer who has written both Tudor and World War Two thrillers. Interestingly, Wilde is an expert in Elizabethan history. There is a wider perspective to these novels, a strong sense that intrigue and deception are timeless and that the past can repeat itself. I like that. The Man in the Bunker is the sixth novel in a series that has taken us from the troubled, ominous years just before the war, through the war and now to its immediate aftermath when the concentration camps are being liberated and the true horror of the war is revealed. Berlin at this time is such a fascinating setting for a thriller that is enthralling from start to finish.

I think that The Man in the Bunker stands well alone as it very much focuses on the matter at hand, removing Wilde from his life and family in Cambridge. It is apart from the earlier novels. But I really recommend reading them all. Wilde is a fantastic character, an intellectual and a man of action. He has his hands full here, though, thanks to Heck, who holds his own against Wilde and adds a real edge of danger and menace to the story, while being a constant reminder of the personal motivation of many to bring the Nazis to justice. The two men uncover multiple stories of suffering and endurance. This is a powerful, disturbing novel.

Wilde and Heck interview several of the people who knew Hitler most, adding to the mystery element of the novel while also providing a chilling picture of Hitler and those closest to him during the last days of the Reich.

The Man in the Bunker is thoroughly exciting, ingenious and page-turning. Now that the war is over I wonder what the future holds for Tom Wilde but I really hope we haven’t seen the last of him and his wife, Lydia. This has been a great series from the beginning but I think that this, the sixth, is my favourite.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus

Nemesis
Hitler’s Secret
A Prince and a Spy

The Queen’s Lady by Joanna Hickson

HarperCollins | 2022 (20 January) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1502 and Henry VII and his queen Elizabeth desperately mourn the loss of their son and firstborn heir, Prince Arthur, so newly married to Katherine of Aragon. It is Lady Joan Guildford’s task to console the Queen, while comforting the remaining precocious royal children, to whom she is Mother Guildford. Her son Hal is Prince Henry’s closest friend and Joan’s life is interconnected with the royal family in so many ways but all that will change when the damaged, insecure King suspects so many of his courtiers of corruption, including Joan’s husband. Joan finds comfort in her home and household, in teaching English to Princess Katherine. She discovers that she can love again and with the accession of Henry, a Renaissance prince, to the throne, everything will change once more for this remarkable and well-loved woman.

The Queen’s Lady follows on from Joanna Hickson’s The Lady of the Ravens, which presents a marvellous introduction to Joan, a young woman who forged such a deep relationship with Elizabeth of York during the later years of the Wars of the Roses and spent her free time looking after the ravens at the Tower of London. The two novels form a complete whole and I would heartily recommend you read them both but The Queen’s Lady also stands well on its own, especially as it enters into a new era – the decline of Henry VII and the emergence of Henry VIII. It’s worth mentioning that the novel doesn’t venture into the well-trodden divorce/remarriage years of Henry VIII’s reign and that is something to be thankful for!

I love Joanna Hickson’s novels. She writes beautifully and the studies are full of emotion and feeling as she places the lives of women at the centre of history. Here we have not only Joan but also Elizabeth of York, Margaret Beaufort (Henry VII’s incredible mother), Joan’s maid, Katherine of Aragon, the Princesses Margaret and Mary as well as many other mothers, wives and daughters. They might not fight on the battlefield (although Katherine has a yearning to do this) or have official roles in government but they provide such a fascinating perspective on key events, such as the disintegration of Henry VII or the Field of the Cloth of Gold. And childbirth is shown to be every bit as dangerous as anything a man may face in war.

The Queen’s Lady is without doubt one of my favourite novels by Joanna Hickson. I love the historical setting with Henry VII’s increasingly strange and paranoid behaviour, removing him so far from his stature as triumphant warrior on Bosworth Field. The impact of this on Joan’s husband, Sir Richard, is really tragic and moving, and pathetic in the true sense of the word. Joan is cut adrift and we watch how she deals with it. There is romance but it isn’t sentimental. Joan is not a sentimental woman. She’s practical, busy and warm, a natural teacher and protector. I really like her. She’s a true historical figure and the author breathes life into her.

The scenes set at court are wonderful, with all of the feasting, jousts and games, the complicated system of living quarters, the etiquette surrounding the royal family. I also enjoyed the sections in which Joan accompanies the princesses to their royal husbands – of Scotland and of France. There is so much going on and I was thoroughly engrossed from start to finish, in the quiet moments and in the times of drama.

The Queen’s Lady completes Joan’s story and what a story it is! I cannot wait for the next novel from this fabulous author.

Other reviews
The Agincourt Bride
The Tudor Bride
Red Rose, White Rose
An interview
First of the Tudors
Guest post – What’s In a Name?
The Tudor Crown
The Lady of the Ravens

The Honour of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2021 (11 November) | 431p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Honour of Rome by Simon ScarrowIt is AD 58 and retired Praetorian Centurion Macro has arrived in Londinium, Britannia, with his new wife Petronella. It wasn’t plain sailing getting there, to put it mildly, and, now that she’s seen the place, Petronella isn’t impressed. But the plan is to spend Macro’s retirement running the inn and brothel that he co-owns with his formidable mother Portia while also managing a farm in the veteran’s colony of Camulodunum.

If only matters ever went to plan for Macro. It isn’t long before Macro discovers that Londinium is a lawless place, run by gangsters, and he’s managed to get himself noticed by rival gangs after barely a day in this backwater. There will be trouble. And it’s not all plain sailing in Camulodunum either, where the veterans find themselves called up to deal with some hostile tribe members. Petronella’s increasing fears about the safety of Britannia seem well-founded. If only Cato were around to help Macro.

The Honour of Rome is the twentieth (wow!) novel in Simon Scarrow’s ever-popular Eagle series featuring the exploits of best friends and colleagues Centurion Macro and Prefect Cato. The two names go together as well as fish and chips and salt and vinegar (I’m clearly hungry) but this state of affairs has shifted thanks to Macro’s reluctant retirement from the Roman army. The last novel, The Emperor’s Exile, mainly focused on Cato and his troubles in Sardinia, with Macro making an occasional appearance, and this time we’re with Macro, his wife and mother in Britannia, with Cato turning up later on. I must admit that it’s when the two are together that I’m at my happiest. We’ll have to see how that works out in future novels although I think the signs are good.

Nobody attracts trouble like Macro and he’s up to his neck in it almost by the end of page one, as if he wasn’t scarred enough already. You can just imagine Petronella rolling her eyes at him as he gets into one scrape after another. Macro has a formidable foe in this novel in the shape of the gangsters running the local protection rackets. He also joins a force to tackle unrest among the local tribes near Camulodunum. It’s difficult to know which is more deadly.

I’m not a particular fan of novels about gangsters and I discovered with The Honour of Rome that this also extends to Roman gangsters but I really enjoyed the descriptions of Londinium, a city in its earliest days. Barely any time at all has passed since the conquest – which involved Cato and Macro – and there is a real feel of the wild west about the place. It’s also mid Winter, which doesn’t help the feeling of desolation. The reader will be well aware that Boudica’s revolt looms at the time in which this novel is set and so there is extra interest in the references to Macro’s old friend, Boudica herself.

The Honour of Rome is full of action, fighting, military skirmishes and camaraderie between old soldiers. It’s difficult not to be carried along by Macro as he immerses himself in this new environment and finds his place. There is, to be warned, violence and cussing. I liked how this masculine world is also offset a little by the inclusion of the very likeable Petronella and the indomitable Portia.

I did find The Honour of Rome very entertaining as always. While not being my favourite of the series, it is always good to spend time with Macro and Cato, and the clues are there that make me want to read the next novel very much indeed.

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
Day of the Caesars

The Blood of Rome
Traitors of Rome
The Emperor’s Exile
With T.J. Andrews – Invader
Blackout

The Spirit Engineer by AJ West

Duckworth | 2021 | 304p | Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

Belfast, 1914 and it is two years since the Titanic sank, taking with it to the cold dark depths William Jackson Crawford’s brother-in-law Arthur. William’s wife Elizabeth looks for comfort from medium Kathleen Goligher, who claims that restless spirits can speak through her. But William is a sceptic and a scientist who is determined to prove Kathleen a liar and fraud. But, when he attends an event to expose her, he hears voices that he cannot explain, intensified after further tragic events. Could it be that the rational scientist and teacher is himself haunted? William Jackson Crawford must know and his obsessive investigations attracts celebrity attention. But then William, the famous Spirit Engineer, begins his own experiments and enters the darkness.

I’m a big fan of historical gothic novels and The Spirit Engineer is a novel I couldn’t wait to read. I actually listened to the audiobook, which is wonderfully read by Dickon Farmar. This is a story that really lends itself to that format and gave it an extra creepy atmosphere. Excellent. The novel begins with tragedy and the reader is well aware that soon, this being 1914, there will be many more restless souls, people dying before their time on the battlefields of northern Europe. But, for Belfast, the loss of the Titanic is an immediate source of grief and questions about the nature of life and death. William Jackson Crawford, a real person and Professor of Engineering, can’t reconcile his wife’s need to commune with the dead with his own scientific query for fact. But then he hadn’t suffered his own tragedy quite yet.

This is an extremely atmospheric and pretty disturbing novel. It begins in normality, with William suspecting his wife of having an affair, thanks to some strange letters from their former maid who left in mysterious circumstances. But the more William becomes obsessed, the darker the book becomes. And it’s then that you start to take notice of the shadows in the room.

There are moments of surreal lightness, such as when William attracts the attention of celebrities of the day, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini, but we’re entering the world of the macabre and gothic melodrama as we descend deeper into William’s mind. My one stumbling block in the novel was how absolutely despicable William Jackson Crawford is and being in his mind is not a pleasant place to be as the novel and his madness progress. His cruelty and the distress he causes are upsetting. But The Spirit Engineer is a powerful novel and it presents a compelling portrait of a man’s spiral into darkness.

The Spirit Engineer is a genuinely frightening novel, steeped in atmosphere, with a witty edge. The author’s achievement is even more incredible when you realise that this is a true story. AJ West finds the heart of it. Perfect reading or listening for these winter nights.

The Mitford Vanishing by Jessica Fellowes

Sphere | 2021 (4 November) | 416p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1937 and Europe is marching towards war, with Civil War already raging in Spain. Idealists on both sides – Communist and Fascist – are drawn to the conflict in Spain, perhaps not realising the horrors they will face there. The Mitford family is as divided as Europe but they come together when they realise that Communist sister Jessica (nicknamed Decca) has eloped to France and believed to be heading for Spain. Their former maid Louisa now runs a private detective agency with her ex-policeman husband Guy and the two of them are surprised when novelist Nancy Mitford hires them to track down Decca and her unsuitable lover. Scandal, war, ruination face the young woman if she cannot be found in time.

The Mitford Vanishing is the fifth novel in Jessica Fellowes’ wonderful series, which follows the lives of this extraordinary,  glamorous and controversial family. Each one tends to look at a different sister and so you can pick them up easily but I’d really recommend reading the series from the beginning as then you’ll know more about Louisa and Guy. Louisa is the star of these novels however shiny the sisters are. One thing’s for sure, they all attract trouble and they have kept Louisa’s investigative skills busy since the day she first met them.

This time we’re on the trail of Decca but, as she remains elusive for much of the novel, the focus is on the people that Louisa and Guy meet on their travels across France. The war in Spain looms over events and the details about that are fascinating. Louisa, though, has other matters on her mind and spends much of the novel investigating another case in London of a missing woman while Guy chases clues on the continent.

The novel mixes fact and fiction very well and the scenes in France are particularly compelling. I wasn’t convinced as much by the London missing person case or its conclusion but Decca’s mysterious disappearance is thoroughly entertaining and a great device through which to look at the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War.

Louisa is a fabulous main character and I’ve enjoyed following her over the years. Her husband Guy plays a much bigger role than usual and he is improved for it. The two now feel like an equal partnership and they work so well together.

I listened to the audiobook, which was well-read but I think the treebook would be better due to the many brief chapters.

We are running out of Mitford sisters now but arguably the strangest of them all remains – Unity. I really, really hope Jessica Fellowes tackles her next!

Other reviews
The Mitford Murders catch up (The Mitford Murders and Bright Young Dead)
The Mitford Scandal
The Mitford Trial