Review: The Unkept Woman by Allison Montclair

Review: The Unkept Woman by Allison MontclairThe Unkept Woman (Sparks & Bainbridge, #4) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #4
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Allison Montclair returns with the fourth Sparks & Bainbridge mystery, The Unkept Woman: London, 1946, Miss Iris Sparks--currently co-proprietor of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau--has to deal with aspects of her past exploits during the recent war that have come back around to haunt her.
The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals - Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris's past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son - a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.
Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.

My Review:

The title of this one, just like the previous book in the series, A Rogue’s Company, is a bit of a pun. Because neither Iris nor Gwen are “kept women” in the traditional sense that phrase is usually meant.

But they both have been, in rather nontraditional meanings of the phrase. And the circumstances under which each of them placed themselves under some man’s thumb have come back to bite them in this fourth entry in the Sparks & Bainbridge series.

Gwen Bainbridge is currently under the thumb of her father-in-law, Lord Harold Bainbridge. When her husband was killed late in the war, Gwen attempted suicide. Twice. And Harold had her declared a lunatic and committed to a sanatorium. She’s been out for quite some time now, she and Iris started their business together, and Gwen is ready to take back the reins of her own life – only to realize that those reins are something she has never really had.

And that the doctors and lawyers who will help her present her case that she is no longer a lunatic are all telling her that getting kidnapped and solving murders is not going to make the Lunacy Court look kindly on her pleas.

Meanwhile, Iris’ ex-lover, the spy who rented her apartment for her under one of his many false names, has barged back into her life and left a corpse in her apartment. The police believe that Iris is the killer, and are not taking kindly to the way that Iris continues to dodge both their questions and the plain-clothes detectives they send to tail her.

All the things that Iris can’t say are wrapped up in her own spy work during the war – and are covered by the Official Secrets Act. She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she tells the cops what she knows, she’ll be killed for violating those official secrets. And if she doesn’t talk – and can’t find out what really happened – there’s all too likely a chance that she’ll be convicted of a capital crime with the resulting capital sentence.

In order to solve the murder and get herself out from under the cops’ accusing eyes, Iris will need all the help she can get. It’s too bad for her that her old spymaster has cut her off, her gangster boyfriend has decided she’s too hot to handle – and not in a fun way, and that her best friend and partner Gwen is too worried about her chances in the courts to take a chance on helping Iris.

Or is she?

Escape Rating A: This entry in the series isn’t really about the marriage bureau at all. This one is all about the two women who own it, and their separate but parallel determination to stand on their own two feet (four feet altogether) without expecting to be helped or rescued or taken care of by anyone except, when the occasion requires it, each other.

It’s a story about letting the past go, for Iris to stop paying penance for the things she didn’t do during the war, and for Gwen to fight her corner and take care of herself for the first time in her life – making the best decisions for herself and her son.

The sense of the historical setting is particularly strong in this one. The war is over, but the recovery has just barely begun. The old war may be over, but another war, a cold war of spies and intelligence gathering, has taken its place. And neither Sparks’ nor Bainbridge’s war has really been dealt with. Iris is still punishing herself for her actions – or rather for her inactions – while Gwen has been so caught up in fighting her in-laws that she’s just now realizing that she hasn’t determined what form her independence will take – because she’s never really had any in her life.

So one side of this story is very much a spy thriller, as Iris has to use all of her old tradecraft to hunt down who really done it and why. Meanwhile, Gwen is demonstrating that she’s learned more from Iris than even she expected, and that she’s more than capable of fighting any corner she has to – even if she has to assault the police to get them to listen to her.

The Unkept Woman is a terrific combination of history, mystery and women’s friendship. I’m really glad I was introduced to Sparks and Bainbridge back in The Right Sort of Man. But dammit we still don’t know exactly what Sparks did during the war – although we sure do learn a lot more about it in this entry in the series. She’s still talking around what she did but the circle around that truth is getting a lot closer. Hopefully we will find out more in the next book in the series – whenever it comes.

Review: A Rogue’s Company by Allison Montclair

Review: A Rogue’s Company by Allison MontclairA Rogue's Company (Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery, #3) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #3
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on June 8, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Allison Monclair's A Rogue's Company, business becomes personal for the Right Sort Marriage Bureau when a new client, a brutal murder, two kidnappings, and the recently returned from Africa Lord Bainbridge threatens everything that one of the principals holds dear.
In London, 1946, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting on its feet and expanding. Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge are making a go of it. That is until Lord Bainbridge—the widowed Gwen's father-in-law and legal guardian—returns from a business trip to Africa and threatens to undo everything important to her, even sending her six-year-old son away to a boarding school.
But there's more going on than that. A new client shows up at the agency, one whom Sparks and Bainbridge begin to suspect really has a secret agenda, somehow involving the Bainbridge family. A murder and a subsequent kidnapping sends Sparks to seek help from a dangerous quarter—and now their very survival is at stake.

My Review:

I’ve just realized that the title is a pun – or a spoiler, take your pick – on multiple levels. Iris Sparks, co-owner of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, is keeping company with Archie Spelling, a known gangster. Quite willingly and fairly often.

Gwen Bainbridge, her friend and co-owner of the agency, very much on the other hand, has been forced to keep company with a gang of rogues because they’ve kidnapped her while she was in the unfortunate company – and unfortunately in the company – of her douchecanoe of a father-in-law, Lord Harold Bainbridge.

That Harold is a complete and utter rotter is not a spoiler at all. I think I rage-read the first half of this book because Harold’s douchecanoe nature and general all-around misogynistic asshattery is on display from practically the first page of the book.

I hated not just every scene the man was in but every time Gwen was forced to deal with the power the man had over Gwen’s – and every other person in the household’s – life. A power that he indulged to a disgusting degree at every possible turn as well as at plenty of turns that one wouldn’t have thought were possible, if only because he was willing to insult and demean everyone except his cronies in front of any audience at all. Going completely against that whole idea that one didn’t air one’s dirty linen in public.

Harold has power over Gwen because he had Gwen declared mentally incompetent when she was unable to maintain the proper British stiff-upper-lip in the face of her husband’s (Harold’s son’s) death during the late war. Along with that declaration, Harold captured custody of Gwen, her son Ronnie (his grandson) and all of the shares in Bainbridge Ltd., that his son left to his wife in his will.

And thereby hangs a good chunk of the tale. For Gwen, it’s all about little Ronnie, and not letting Harold send her 6-year-old boy off to the boarding school that his father hated and that turned his grandfather into the disgusting, overbearing ass that he became.

As Gwen grabs hold of her courage and her will and begins to finally fight back, she – with the aiding, abetting and more-than-able assistance of her partner Iris – puts her very superior brain to work to figure out what’s behind her consignment to her father-in-law’s clutches, along with exactly what’s behind his consignment to the clutches of his (their) kidnappers.

It’ll be the making of Gwen – if she survives. Even if calling in favors from her friendly neighborhood gangster puts Iris’ future happiness at risk.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I loved the first two books in this series, The Right Sort of Man and A Royal Affair. In the end, I loved this one too, but not as much as the first two because, well, see my comments about rage-reading the first half located above.

I’m starting to think I’m just allergic to stories that feature women caught in impossible situations because men are entitled assholes whether the jerks in question are actually titled or not. Gwen Bainbridge’s situation has always been a bit precarious vis a vis her titled, overbearing, petty dictator of a father-in-law, because he’s always held the whip hand in their relationship and seems to enjoy using it. Her husband – his son – died in the war and Gwen’s mourning of him did not exactly exhibit the stiff upper lip that Brits are known for. She was labeled as a “hysteric” and placed under the guardianship of her late husband’s family. Under the thumb of her father-in-law who threatens and demeans every single person with whom he comes in contact at every possible turn – including his grandson, Gwen’s 6-year-old son Ronnie. The dinner party scene with the toasts was particularly horrific in this regard – but it was just the latest in a continuing line of horrors in that household.

It’s not a surprise that both Sparks and Bainbridge, along with nearly every other person who comes into contact with the man, wants to commit some kind of mayhem upon his odious person. It’s only a surprise that it didn’t happen sooner – and more often.

I’m going to try to stop ranting now. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be. Gwen’s asshat-in-law has the same name as my ex-husband, so there might be a teensy bit of transference going on here.

Moving right along…

This story isn’t about Gwen’s family troubles, although it certainly is about families, and troubles, and the trouble that we will put ourselves through for our families – or at least for the members of our family that we love.

Because the other half of this story starts out with a bit of a dilemma for Gwen and Iris. They have a new client – well of course they do, that’s the whole raison d’etre of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau after all. But their new client causes them to question a whole host of assumptions that they both had when they began their enterprise.

Their new client, Simon Daile, is African. Not a Brit who has gone to Africa to make a fortune – like the odious Lord Bainbridge – but a man from Africa who came to England to study agriculture and got stuck there during the war. He’s the first black client the agency has had, and they are surprised. Then they are surprised that they are surprised.

And finally, they figure out that they’ve been missing out on clients because they assumed that all their clients would be just like themselves. White. And that they need to throw their assumptions out the window, no matter how comfortable clinging to them might have been.

Their bit of soul searching feels like it’s handled reasonably well, at least right up until the point where Gwen’s bit of sixth sense about when people are lying to her kicks in. Because Mr. Daile is lying about something. Or she thinks he is. And she’s afraid that her intuition has gone off or is leading her astray because she’s uncomfortable. Which is logical, merely incorrect in this case. Also, that she’s just second-guessing herself because Lord Bainbridge does nothing but try his worst to make her feel small, incapable and lacking in pretty much everything at every turn.

(Speaking of comfort, my soapbox is apparently a bit too comfortable. Moving right along AGAIN…)

It turns out that she’s both right and wrong, and that the wrongness ties into the mystery genre’s convention about coincidences. There are two threads to this story, Mr. Daile and the kidnapping of Lord Bainbridge and Gwen. Those threads connect – just not in any of the ways that Gwen – or the reader – might have initially suspected..

And Gwen rescues herself. Not just from the kidnapping, but from Lord Bainbridge. And it’s glorious! Now that she’s gotten THAT albatross off from around her neck. I have really high hopes for future books in this series! Meanwhile, I’m going to take a look at The Haunting of the Desks, a short story in the series that looks like oodles of fun!

Review: A Royal Affair by Allison Montclair

Review: A Royal Affair by Allison MontclairA Royal Affair (Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery #2) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

More goes wrong than could be imagined when Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge of The Right Sort Marriage Bureau are unexpectedly engaged to dig into the past of a suitor of a royal princess in Allison Montclair’s delightful second novel, A Royal Affair.
In London 1946, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau is just beginning to take off and the proprietors, Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, are in need of a bigger office and a secretary to handle the growing demand. Unfortunately, they don't yet have the necessary means. So when a woman arrives—a cousin of Gwen's—with an interesting and quite remunerative proposition, they two of them are all ears.
The cousin, one Lady Matheson, works for the Queen in "some capacity" and is in need of some discreet investigation. It seems that the Princess Elizabeth has developed feelings for a dashing Greek prince and a blackmail note has arrived, alluding to some potentially damaging information about said prince. Wanting to keep this out of the palace gossip circles, but also needing to find out what skeletons might lurk in the prince's closet, the palace has quietly turned to Gwen and Iris. Without causing a stir, the two of them must now find out what secrets lurk in the prince's past, before his engagement to the future Queen of England is announced. And there's more at stake than the future of the Empire —there is their potential new office that lies in the balance.

My Review:

I picked this up because I absolutely adored the first book in this series, The Right Sort of Man. So I wanted to see what happened next to Sparks and Bainbridge.

In spite of the titles of the books, this is emphatically NOT a romance series. Set in the immediate post-World War II period, Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge run a marriage bureau, called The Right Sort. As in they are looking to find the right sort of man or woman for their clients to marry. They get paid, not by the hour, but by their successful matchmaking.

But in the first book in the series, their matchmaking investigation leads them into a murder investigation – as the investigators. Which may, or may not, have been just the kind of notoriety they needed to get their fledgling business off the ground.

That notoriety, however, does bring them to the attention of the Palace. Buckingham Palace, that is.

The Queen – the one who became known as the “Queen Mum” – in the person of her confidential agent Lady Matheson, has a case for Sparks and Bainbridge that should be right up their alley. The only problem is that the alley in question is covered by the Official Secrets Act.

They want Sparks and Bainbridge to vet one of Lilibet’s suitors. Because whoever marries Lilibet, better known to history as Queen Elizabeth II, will become Prince Consort and the father of the next heir to the throne. While not King, whoever it is will still represent the United Kingdom on the world stage.

While kings and princes may later have scandals attached to their names – the debacle of Edward VII’s abdication is still in recent memory – the royal family can’t afford to let anyone in with a scandal already attached.

It’s obvious from recent photos, gleefully published by the gossip papers, that Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark is going to propose to Princess Elizabeth – and probably soon. It’s unfortunately clear from recent correspondence addressed to the Princess that someone has dirt on Philip.

Well, not exactly on Philip himself. After all, no one is responsible for the circumstances of their own birth. But even a hint of a question about whether said birth was legitimate will be more than enough scandal to wreck any possibility of his marrying the future Queen.

As well as throw a spanner into any possibility that his cousin, King George II of Greece, will ever get the chance to sit on his own throne.

It all sounds like a case that should be a bit too big for a simple marriage bureau to handle. But Sparks and Bainbridge are more than up to the job!

24th November 1947: Princess Elizabeth and The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh enjoying a walk during their honeymoon at Broadlands, Romsey, Hampshire. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Escape Rating A-: After decades of pictures of Queen Elizabeth as matron, mother, grandmother and now great-grandmother, it’s hard to remember that once upon a time she was the young and beautiful princess in love with her very own handsome prince. But the pictures from the time when this story takes place, while they may or may not show the true state of the affection between Elizabeth and Philip certainly show them as being young and quite photogenic at the very least.

I was expecting this story to be more of the wonderful formula that we first saw in The Right Sort of Man, two women in a strong and developing friendship – or womance, to use the female equivalent of bromance. Iris and Gwen are from different backgrounds and have taken different roads to get where they are, but they each have something the other lacks.

Iris has street smarts, but more than that she has the training to use those smarts. Training that was honed during the late war in her service as an undercover operative doing things that would put her in prison in peacetime. Things that would have certainly gotten her killed if she had been caught. Which she wasn’t.

In addition to her deadlier skills, Iris also brings a whole host of “friends in low places” to their partnership. She can get things done. She can get bodies buried. She can get them into and out of trouble.

Gwen Bainbridge is a single mother being essentially held hostage by her wealthy in-laws. It’s a privileged life, but Gwen is very much the bird in the gilded cage. Working with Sparks is a way of keeping her sanity and giving her purpose – which also helps her keep her sanity. And it keeps her out of her in-laws house where they watch her like a hawk. After her husband’s death during the war, Gwen went into a slough of despond – she descended into a deep depression. During that period her in-laws took custody of her young son – their grandson. Now that she’s well on the mend, she wants custody back. And they are holding that over her head at every opportunity.

What Gwen brings to the partnership is her knowledge of the upper crust, and her membership in those rarefied circles as well as her Cambridge education. She can get them entree into places that would otherwise be closed to them, and can get information out of people who would otherwise show them the door – or at least the entrance to the servants’ quarters.

The progress of this case both makes their partnership stronger and shows the places where they still need to work on it. They are friends and partners, but there is also more than a hint of lingering resentment and jealousy on both sides, as each wishes they had some of the other’s circumstances or advantages. And they occasionally play one-upsmanship (up-womanship?) games with each other.

But it was the case that held my interest in this one. I was not expecting to get something that matched the espionage and governmental skullduggery that occurred in Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook, not even with a much happier ending. Especially not combined with the romance that forms the backdrop of The Gown.

These are two great tastes that I did not expect to even see together, let alone to discover that they taste great together. But they definitely do!

I hope that we’ll see more of Sparks & Bainbridge’s adventures. I can’t wait to see how they top this one!

 

Review: The Right Sort of Man by Allison Montclair

Review: The Right Sort of Man by Allison MontclairThe Right Sort of Man by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #1
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on June 4, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"A delightful immersion in the period and personalities, with that touch of depth that transforms a good series to a great one." --Laurie R. King


First comes love, then comes murder.


In a London slowly recovering from World War II, two very different women join forces to launch a business venture in the heart of Mayfair--The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. Miss Iris Sparks, quick-witted and impulsive, and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, practical and widowed with a young son, are determined to achieve some independence and do some good in a rapidly changing world.

But the promising start to their marriage bureau is threatened when their newest client, Tillie La Salle, is found murdered and the man arrested for the crime is the prospective husband they matched her with. While the police are convinced they have their man, Miss Sparks and Mrs. Bainbridge are not. To clear his name--and to rescue their fledging operation's reputation--Sparks and Bainbridge decide to investigate on their own, using the skills and contacts they've each acquired through life and their individual adventures during the recent war.

Little do they know that this will put their very lives at risk.

My Review:

It’s ironic that the protagonists in The Right Sort of Man are absolutely not looking for the right sort, or even the wrong sort of man for themselves. Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge operate a marriage bureau, and they are in the barely profitable business of finding the right sort of man for other women – as well as the other way around.

And that’s where things hit a snag for our intrepid entrepreneurs. One of their clients has just been murdered – and the one and only suspect that the police are interested in pursuing is the person that the Right Sort Marriage Bureau believed was the right sort for the dead woman.

Obviously, if the police are right, Gwen and Iris were very, very wrong. But they don’t think they are. That’s a conclusion that feels right even at the beginning. It feels like the police have come to the easy solution instead of looking for the correct one – but their case makes very little sense. It ties up all too neatly – but makes no sense whatsoever.

That’s where Gwen and Iris step in. Or perhaps I should say barge in. If Dickie Trower didn’t murder Tillie La Salle, then someone else certainly did. If they can find the real killer, they can save an innocent man from the gallows – and save their fledgling business into the bargain.

So they set out to catch a killer, armed with Gwen’s keen intuition about people, and Iris’ many mysterious skills gathered during her top secret career in one of Britain’s ultra secret war departments.

It’s too bad she can’t tell Gwen what she did – because the hints she drops are beyond frustrating.

Even without knowing exactly what Iris did, it’s clear that Iris is up for this unpaid job they’ve taken on. The surprise to Gwen is that she is every bit as capable in her own way as Iris. They both survived their war deeply damaged – but survive they did.

Now it’s time to live – if they can just get poor Mr. Trower out of jail first.

Escape Rating A: This was a terrific read and a great blend of historical fiction and historical mystery. The war is over, and it’s not, both at the same time. Particularly in Britain, where rationing was still very much in effect. Rationing didn’t end in Britain until 1954! (It ended in the US in 1945 for everything except sugar and that rationing ended in 1947)

So this story is an excellent portrait of two women who become friends and business partners, who begin with a whole lot of necessary secrets between them, but end up as close as sisters. They bond over their amateur detecting, even though Iris isn’t really an amateur at all.

Both women are left scarred and broken in their own ways by their war experience, and their work together, both in the marriage bureau and in their foray into sleuthing, is part of their healing.

The case itself delves into some of the dark places of post-war life. In their hunt for a murderer, they find themselves in the midst of a counterfeiting case – as well as working both with and against one of the gangs involved with the black market.

What makes their relationship so much fun to watch is that they come from completely different backgrounds and have totally different approaches to their circumstances. Gwen is the child of privilege, where Iris’ background seems to have been middle-class at best. Both are escaping from trauma that they have not dealt with properly, although their escapes methods, while being totally different, are equally unhealthy.

This investigation sees them take their first steps into a brighter future. And it’s terrific to watch. I also think that readers of the Maisie Dobbs series are going to love Iris and Gwen.

In the end, neither Iris nor Gwen finds exactly the right sort of man, but this is absolutely, positively the right sort of book if you’re looking for a terrific story of women’s friendship bonded by solving mysteries together!