Frances Brody

Frances Brody
Death in the Stars

Great Britain between the two World Wars was apparently knee-deep in private investigators, with lady detectives particularly thick on the ground. Tuppence Beresford might have taken tea with Maisie Dobbs; Georgiana Rannoch and Daisy Dalrymple could have rubbed elbows at a house party. (Gumshoes Jade del Cameron and Phryne Fisher, active during this same period, generally stuck to their home turf of East Africa and Australia, respectively.) Luckily there’s plenty of murder and mayhem to go around.

Into this cloche-and-dagger landscape steps Kate Shackleton. Kate hails from Yorkshire—Brontë country, if you’re keeping a literary map of the world—and lost her surgeon husband during the Great War. She enters the detective trade by the back door to help others searching for missing persons, and is aided in her inquiries by retired policeman Jim Sykes and housekeeper Mrs. Sugden, the Shackleton equivalents of Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson.

Death in the Stars, the ninth mystery, centers around music hall performers, a total eclipse of the sun, and an overdose of cocaine, with a ventriloquist’s dummy providing crucial evidence. Each book highlights some aspect of 1920s culture; key characters include a fortune teller, textile workers, Boer War veterans, a maharajah, and an organ grinder’s monkey.

This is a series that grows on you. There’s no flash to Kate or her associates, but Brody’s stories are well plotted and keep you guessing right up til the end. Kate herself remains something of an enigma, despite what we learn of her life as an adopted daughter, shutterbug, war widow, and former VAD nurse. Her depths are revealed over time, like one of her photographic plates developing, and her quiet humor gleams in observations like “a smile that reminded me of a short length of curled knicker elastic in the sewing box.”

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