Cbr11bingo Summer Read
The Scandal at Bletchley * is the first in what promises to be a fun mystery series featuring an unorthodox detective. Sir Hilary Manningham-Butler is a former employee of Britain’s spy agency, MI5, now married conveniently if not happily to the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. In October of 1929, as the world’s stock markets are on the verge of collapse, so is Hilary’s life. It is discovered at a weekend reunion of some MI5 veterans at Bletchley Park that a murderer is in their midst; moreover, one of the invitees has discovered Hilary’s most guarded secret: Hilary is a woman!
Hilary, who narrates the tale, reveals his secret to us immediately. Hilary prefers to be identified as male and so all pronouns will reflect that. He writes from the 1960s, when he is already elderly and most of the people from his past life are already dead. Hilary’s father was disappointed to have had a daughter instead of a male heir, and so he raised Hilary as a male. Hilary does not object to this; not only does this allow him to inherit his father’s baronetcy, but he prefers the life of a man — the clothes, the freedom; and the life of a wealthy man is the best of all. The only person who knows Hilary’s secret is the valet Hargreaves, who has known Hilary since childhood; even Hilary’s wife Elizabeth is unaware of the secret (and the explanation of that is … plausible).
Before taking off for the shindig at Bletchley, Hilary’s old MI5 colleague Harry Latimer gets in contact with him for a favor. Harry is an American and a bit of a rogue/loose cannon. He has a way with the ladies, is a lucky gambler (unlike Hilary), and has been involved in some shady dealings that may or may not have been work related. Harry is also on his way to Bletchley but has run into a travel snag. He asks Hilary to go to the train station for a rendezvous with a man who has a satchel for Harry. Hilary agrees and, of course, once he has the locked satchel in hand, pries it open to find a gun and thousands of French Francs. Hilary is not terribly surprised but does wonder about that gun.
The party assembled at Bletchley is a varied bunch who have all worked for the Colonel, Sir Vincent Kelly. The Colonel is a much esteemed man who has managed his agents and Britain’s political vagaries with aplomb and finesse. Author Jack Treby does a nice job of showing how MI5 was walking a tightrope politically due to its past pursuit of trade unionists; trade unions provided vital support to the Labour Party, which held power in 1929. Even a whiff of scandal around MI5 could mean its demise. Thus, when not one but two bodies are found on the grounds of Bletchley, it is vitally important to the Colonel to solve the mystery and cover it up.
The suspects, of course, are the MI5 agents at the reunion and their valets, personal assistants, etc. These people include a nosy reporter, a flapper/showgirl, a daughter of a prominent politician, a French doctor, an Indian philosopher, the Smiths — a pretentious couple from Yorkshire, Harry and Hilary. Hilary as narrator is quite fun. He is a bit of an alcoholic, a terrible gambler and a snob. He has nothing but disdain for the Smiths, the showgirl, the Frenchman and the Indian, although he does realize that they have all served MI5 in some way and if the Colonel has trusted them, they must be okay. Through the course of the story, Hilary’s own character flaws are revealed, and he does begin to see that perhaps he was wrong to have judged at least some of these people as harshly as he did initially.
The mystery is solved in a satisfyingly dramatic fashion, and Hilary begins new adventures that ought to be very interesting to read. I am hoping that Treby continues to incorporate fun historical and political facts about the time period. It looks as if Hilary heads off to Spain in the next book, and that could mean details about the Falange, fascism in Europe, more trade unions, etc. But make no mistake, while the novel is set during a grim historical period (one of my favorites — the interwar period), these mysteries are witty and humorous. If you enjoy PG Wodehouse or Nick and Nora Charles, Hilary Manningham-Butler mysteries might be for you.
*edited because I actually got the title wrong! Geez!