I don’t usually have any truck with crime fiction that is built around real people and especially not those featuring individuals only relatively recently deceased. For example, I gave up on the Nicola Upton books after the first one even though many of my blogging friends really enjoy them. They leave me feeling uneasy, especially when some of the characters concerned are throughly maligned. However, Jessica Fellowes’ The Mitford Murders was so highly praised by a reviewer who has introduced me to some very fine writers in the past that I decided I would give it the benefit of the doubt and see what it was like. I should learn to trust my own judgement.
As you might gather from the title, the story is based around the Mitford family and I understand that the idea is to write six books each featuring a different daughter in a leading role, starting here with Nancy. It is 1919 and a retired nurse with years of wartime service behind her is killed on a train as she travels from London down to the south coast. The trail very soon goes cold and Guy Sullivan, an officer with the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Police is ordered by his Superintendent to let the matter lie. Guy, however, motivated both by a desire for justice and his ambition to join the Met, is reluctant to do so, especially as pursuing the case gives him a reason to continue contact with one Louisa Cannon, also caught up in the case.
Louisa has her own reasons for also wanting to let the matter lie. Her life in London has become unbearable and a chance meeting with an old friend provides her with an opportunity to take up a post as nursery maid with the Mitford family at their home in Asthall Manor. Louisa is well aware that bringing a murder investigation into the heart of Lord and Lady Redesdale’s family is not going to be acceptable. Unfortunately, once Nancy, sixteen and desperate to move out of the nursery and into the adult world of parties and general bon viveur, finds out about the case Louisa has little option, especially when it begins to appear that a young man who has taken Nancy’s eye may well be involved.
I really wanted to like this book but I was left disappointed on so many levels. The writing is poor, the plotting so weak that it is clear that one individual is involved in the murder even before it has been committed, and very few of the characters rise above the level of stereotype. I can’t help feeling that the series has been conceived simply to take advantage of the interest in such programmes as Downton Abbey and in the Mitford family themselves. Nothing wrong in that if there was anything of substance here but when I compare this to say, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels, which are set in a similar period, there is simply no comparison. Not only do Winspear’s characters have substance, but she is genuinely concerned to explore the social conditions that Londoners and those who had fought in the First World War had to endure in the 1920s and 30s. Here these are simply side issues introduced to provide the occasional red herring along the way.
The story is based on an actual unsolved murder and names have not been changed: that includes the name of the innocent person that Fellows here designates as murderer and I have to say that that left me very uneasy indeed. In fact the whole enterprise just seems tasteless and as it doesn’t even have the merit of being well plotted or well written I find myself wondering what the point was other than to cash in on the popularity of the Mitfords and Downton Abbey. With so much else just lining up waiting to be read I won’t be going back for anymore of these, even though I must admit to being curious as to how Fellowes is going to handle tales of the grown up Diana and Unity.