From the desk of Debbie Brown:
From 1928 to 1932, the British middle and upper class still experienced a bright time. The Roaring Twenties are dimming, yet the fun and frolic continue for those “Bright Young Things” who still have plenty of money. “They drink too much and they’re careless. They’re rich and young and they believe themselves to be invincible.” The descent into decadence plays a major role in The Mitford Scandal, a complex mystery, by Jessica Fellowes.
Foremost among them, Diana Mitford (an actual British socialite of the era) is presented as the embodiment of Daisy Buchanan, the heroine of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus The Great Gatsby. She believes “One should live life to the absolute fullest, not doing anything dreary but surrounding oneself with love and beauty.” Sadly, the reader comes to understand that “life to the fullest” includes infidelity, adultery, and opium addiction among Diana’s social set.
The book begins with a series of behind-the-scenes views at a high society party in 1928, mostly seen through the eyes of Louisa Cannon, who’s employed as a temporary servant for the evening. Chapter One ends shockingly: a maid falls through a skylight into the middle of the partygoers in the ballroom, dead. While it seems obvious that this was an accident (she had been peeking at the party from a floor up above through the glass dome but fell into it, shattering the glass), evidence years later suggests the cause may have been something more sinister.
The maid’s demise is a precursor to several other deaths among Diana’s socialite friends that occur throughout the book. None are apparent murders, but Louisa and Guy Sullivan (a British police inspector) gradually come to suspect there may be a killer at work. A maid, Rose Morgan, has gone missing and may be able to shed light on the mystery if only she can be found.
When Diana marries Bryan Guinness, Louisa becomes her lady’s maid. She and Luke Meyer hang on the fringes of Diana’s social set – usually tolerated but not really part of the inner circle themselves. In Mr. Meyer’s case, his entrée is due to family connections, primarily Lady Boyd, his aunt. He’s not independently wealthy like the others and supports himself as a “diarist,” or provider of gossip for the London society columns. Observations by Louisa and Luke provide the reader with both clues and red herrings as various members of the group meander through Europe (Paris and Vienna) and back to England. Guy’s investigation turns up additional clues that point to murder.
Louisa and Guy, whose fictional collaborative efforts solved crimes in the previous two books of this series, once again share information to get to the bottom of things here. Louisa is devastated that the police won’t hire her, although she’s pleased that being part of Diana’s entourage at least allows her to see more of the world. Her romantic hopes rise when she and Guy reconnect. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know he is engaged to an Irish girl, Sinéad Barry.
The book blends history with fiction convincingly. Bryan Guinness and Diana Mitford are not the only historical figures portrayed. Others include her siblings—Nancy, Pam, and Tom. Sir Oswald Mosley really was a charismatic political leader, an early proponent of fascism, and a notorious philanderer. The story includes incidents from the lives (and deaths) of Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, members of the famous Bloomsbury Group. Many occurrences depicted did actually happen.
We see the contrast between the older generation’s adherents of strict Victorian and Edwardian moral values versus the looser cultural standards embraced after World War I. There’s mention of the strides women are making. “In the newspapers there were constant stories of women who had earned impressive degrees at university, who were making great scientific discoveries, exploring new territories and flying aeroplanes.” Additionally, the reader can spot early warning signs that the ideology of Hitler and Mussolini are seeping into society.
This is historical fiction with a confounding mystery and a hint of romance. That’s a lot to pack into one book, and it’s mostly successful. I’m impressed with the author’s ability to take actual people and events and weave a fictional story around them. It’s surely a winner for readers who love well-written historical fiction.
I found its biggest problem to be the inherent UN-likability of so many characters. The pages are filled with shallow, spoiled, irresponsible people and, like Louisa, my interest in spending time with them waned. Without caring much about those who died, I was less interested in seeing the culprit discovered and punished.
The villain, once revealed, proves to be both obvious and largely invisible. The biggest clue? As Pam Mitford says, ““It’s extraordinary how people so often don’t see what is right in front of their own eyes.”
4 out of 5 Stars
The Mitford Scandal: A Mitford Murders Mystery Book 3, by Jessica Fellowes
Minotaur Books (January 21, 2020)
Hardcover, eBook, # audiobook (384) pages
Cover image courtesy of Minotaur Books © 2020; text Debbie Brown © 2020, Austenprose.com