Katherine Armstrong has worked in publishing for over six years. She is a crime fiction Editor for an independent publishing company in London.
Mirabelle Bevan is in her late thirties and works as a secretary at a debt collection agency in Brighton (in case the title didn’t give the place away). However, during the war she worked in intelligence for the Secret Service (although with a name like Mirabelle she really had to, didn’t she?).
When her boss, Big Ben McGuigan, is out of the office, Mirabelle takes on the case of tracking down Romana Laszlo, a pregnant Hungarian refugee, who owes money to a London wideboy, Bert Jennings. Finding Romana doesn’t prove all that difficult – she’s dead – however, Mirabelle soon discovers that her case is more complicated than it first appears. She enlists the help of Vesta Churchill (Vesta anyone? Sounds quite Bond too), an insurance secretary who works in her building.
Vesta (not to be confused with Vesper) is a great character. A Jamaican girl in early 1950s Brighton, she is bubbly, intelligent, gutsy and has a penchant for biscuits at a time when rationing is still in force. Mirabelle too is totally believable and a character that you instantly empathise with. She has had a difficult time post-war with the death of her married lover and has consequently left the Secret Service.
But this case proves to her that those special skills that she learnt as an intelligence gatherer are still very much needed in Austerity Britain, where wars of a different kind still need to be fought and won.
Brighton Belle is a quietly compelling novel that has plenty of twists and turns to keep readers happy. I would say though (while hopefully not giving anything away) that the fate of Father Sandor didn’t seem believable to me and it was the one glitch in an otherwise well plotted novel.
On the whole Sara Sheridan’s novel captures Britain at a time of rebuilding and explores how problematic that is for some people. The character of the prostitute Delia epitomises this as a Jewish refugee who has planned her revenge on the man responsible for her family’s deaths during the war. This is Britain a few years after the Nuremberg trials where what you did during the war is still a vitally important question. As Mirabelle says to Delia, ‘I used to be something else. Someone else. Like you, I suppose – people are so different in wartime. No one gets to be ordinary. Not really.’
Brighton Belle is the first in a new historical series that will feature Mirabelle Bevan and Vesta Churchill and that is good news. This is Maisie Dobbs post-Second World War with characters full of gumption and chutzpah.