CBR Bingo ‘Font’ square–the title on the cover embeds a cool little plane, a magnifying glass, and a fluttering blackout curtain in its lettering, while the print text inside is interspersed with lists and notes that look like handwriting.
Robin Stevens’s ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ series (2014-2021) is rather marvellous; it starts off in a very English boarding school in the early 1930s, where the very English Honourable Daisy Wells befriends Hazel Wong, a new girl from Hong Kong who is trying to find her place without losing herself, and without making too many people uncomfortable with her sharp observation of English character and manners. The pair, fuelled by Daisy’s love of Agatha Christie et al. and Hazel’s love for seeing beneath the surface of things, end up solving mysteries and murders galore.
In The Ministry of Unladylike Activity, it is wartime and both Daisy and Hazel work in Intelligence, or some bureau to that effect; the reins of adventure are handed over to May Wong, Hazel’s little sister and her new friend Eric, a biracial child who fled Nazi Germany and whose father has been interned in a British camp for potential harmful ‘aliens’. May and Eric end up at Elysium Hall, trying to solve an espionage mystery that turns into a murder mystery–they’re resentfully helped by Fionnuala, the half-Irish (and therefore also under suspicion) grand-daughter of the house who is a skilled actress and turns out to be good at following clues. The Christie influence is very present, but it’s not the jolly Jazz Age country house we usually think of–Stevens invokes the darker, more complicated family dynamics and anxiety of Christie’s later work–I’m thinking of the ration cards and black market of A Murder is Announced (1950) and the treacherous performances of Taken At the Flood (1948). The home ground–and home front–of Christie’s war novels is not at all solid, and this sense of uncertainty and ambiguity is something that Stevens seems to understand very well.
It is, however, particularly poignant viewed through the eyes of child narrators May and Fionnuala, as the true devastation of war both materially and psychologically dawn on the children–hunting down a spy ceases rather rapidly to be a game and more a matter of survival and duty and other things children shouldn’t have to think about. Stevens also tries to avoid simplistic us vs. them lines by having her main characters from complicated backgrounds–the partly German and Black Eric(h) who briefly felt the glamour of Nazi parades and uniforms before realising how the Hitler Youth would view him and his heritage, the colonial subject May Wong, and the mixed English, Irish, and American Fionnuala (the Republic of Ireland was officially neutral during World War II, which meant that Irish nationals were viewed with suspicion by the English). Nazism is utterly abhorrent and destructive in Stevens’s novel–but England does not quite offer a welcoming refuge for the protagonists either (and Stevens’s afterword notes that England’s policies and position towards refugees fleeing war and persecution remains horrible).
‘But she’s a maid!’ I said. I didn’t ask Eric how he knew that. I’d heard him talking to Ruth in German when they both thought no one was listening. Eric is too friendly sometimes.
‘She’s a maid now,’ said Eric sharply. ‘But she might have been something else before the war. Look at that dress! Mama and Papa were famous musicians back in Germany. Our house was nice, and we had lots of good things, but we had to leave them behind when we left. I had a pet chicken called Glockenspiel, but Papa said she wouldn’t like the weather in England. When we came here, Papa had to give piano lessons, and Mama cleaned houses. So you see, people change who they are when they come to a new country.’
I thought about that. I was sure I was still the same person I’d been in Hong Kong. But I’d left things behind too.’ (p. 185)
This all sounds pretty bleak–but it is interesting! And fun! And the mystery is a corker! And May’s and Fionnuala’s voices in their segments of narration are sweet and sharp and funny, and the growing bond between the children is well drawn.