by Sharon Tucker
Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table. —W. H. Auden
It’s just after World War I (1914-1918) in Yorkshire, and former volunteer nurse Kate Shackleton has discovered that she has skills. Her husband has been missing in action since the last year of the war, 1918, and although her efforts to find him have been unsuccessful so far, she has helped other families locate missing husbands and fathers by having “a police officer father, a poke-your-beak-in persistence, and an eye for detail.” The first three novels of Frances Brody’s cozy mystery series featuring Kate Shackleton are set in the north of England and often feature particular cultural elements for which the north is justifiably famous. The wool trade figures largely in Dying in the Wool (2012). Despite beginning with the investigation of a pawn shop robbery, the theatrical culture in Harrogate is at the center of A Medal for Murder (2013). Murder in the Afternoon (2014) is initially a missing person inquiry, but proceeds to include Shackleton in village life and family matters of her own. Brody’s mysteries are always carefully unwrapped with the evil at the heart revealed to us, the readers, step by step as it is to Shackleton and her former police officer assistant, Jim Sykes.
Like many women who had a taste of independence while the male workforce was otherwise occupied with the war, Shackleton is determined not to return to a merely ornamental lifestyle. She therefore hires Sykes as an able assistant and an acceptable compromise as an additional safety precaution in pursuing her new vocation. A five year old missing person case initiates her official career in Dying in the Wool, but the case has an underlying note of urgency. The daughter of the missing mill owner plans to be married within a few weeks and is determined to have her father give her away. Shackleton and Sykes suspect there’s more to the father’s disappearance than police investigators have found because the clues do not line up in light of her stepmother’s behavior before and since the disappearance as well as curious inconsistencies in the missing man’s behavior according to his psychiatrist.
The initial case Shackleton and Sykes agree to pursue in A Medal for Murder takes them to the Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate and concerns the robbery of a safe full of pawned items—simple enough to solve with a good description of the perpetrator as well as of the stolen items—but the detectives are quickly distracted by the kidnapping of a young, promising actress and the murder of one of her suitors, a Boer war veteran old enough to be her father. Since one of the items stolen from the safe is a medal awarded in that same Boer War, can the incidents be related?
Murder in the Afternoon finds Shackleton awakened in the small hours of the morning by her next client whose husband has been discovered dead close to the local quarry. Curiously enough the body disappeared shortly thereafter before authorities could see, much less confirm the death, but the most curious element of the case is why the distracted wife, Mary Jane Armstrong, has come to Shackleton. Armstrong hints that she and Shackleton met long ago. On closer acquaintance and meeting other relatives of the wife and missing man, their relationship takes an unexpected turn. Investigating the disappearance promises to be challenging, but what fascinates Shackleton most about the case is getting to know the family and its history as well as that of other players involved.
Frances Brody (A.K.A. Frances McNeil) has a way of evoking Yorkshire in the early 20th century that reminds fans of Golden Age mysteries why they fell in love with the era in the first place. It’s a time of growth and change after great hardship. As the class system in Britain continues to erode and many women find themselves hungry to substantially move into or remain in the workforce, Brody’s Kate Shackleton exemplifies that change in sensibilities. She isn’t brash or demanding, she just loves the work and being useful according to her talents. Her cases will surprise mystery lovers because she has the knack to make connections that we as readers may have missed despite Brody’s hints. It’s a treat to see how Shackleton empowers other characters in the stories, whether it’s gainfully employing a too honest former policeman or lending stability to anxious friends or clients. She may be trusted to find the truth her clients say they want and pay her to find. These are delightful reads that put the world to rights and are jewels of the genre.
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