Written by Frances Brody — Frances Brody is the pen name of the experienced and award-winning novelist and playwright Frances McNeil. Dying in the Wool is the first in the series of Kate Shackleton mysteries, set amongst the cloth mills of West Yorkshire during the early 1920s.
Mrs Shackleton, adopted daughter of a police superintendent, develops a talent for amateur sleuthing whilst tracing men folk missing during the Great War for friends. Her successes, providing closure where the more usual lines of enquiry have been less than fruitful, have given her a reputation that leads to her first professional case. Friend from the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), Tabitha Braithwaite, is desperate to find her father, who disappeared four years prior, before she weds. Kate sets about solving the mystery of the missing mill owner Joshua Braithwaite, hiring former policeman Jim Sykes as assistant to aid in the case.
It is written largely in the first person, in the voice of Kate Shackleton, with the odd chapter in the third person to provide snippets of back story. The story relays a convincing sense of place and time. It starts out as a genteel private investigator story and soon evolves into an intriguing and scandalous tale of secrets and double lives bubbling under a seemingly respectable exterior. The protagonists are bound by convention and vested interests with some so keen to keep the status quo that Kate soon finds herself with two murders to add to the complexity and danger of the case.
The upper middle class Kate Shackleton makes for a very gutsy and likeable heroine. Financially independent and reasonably fashionable, her experiences in the VAD have clearly made her worldly wise. A war widow whose husband is presumed dead, body never recovered, she hasn’t fully accepted the painful truth that he is never to return. Frances Brody expertly portrays Kate’s humanity exploring her weaknesses and mistakes as much as her grit and determination. Kate’s male assistant is Sykes is a comparatively flat character in contrast. His primary purpose seems to be for the convenience of the story rather than to provide interesting exploration of class and gender dynamics. A missed opportunity, surely?
Dying in the Wool is a very readable book, though the narrative is at times somewhat overcomplicated with one too many convoluted twists and turns. By two thirds of the way through the book I was beginning to find the complex layers tiresome and longing for at least some resolution to the many hanging threads. However the exciting and dramatic conclusion to events, with Kate finding herself in mortal peril, soon made up for the prior irritations. An inspired piece of historical detective fiction well worth reading.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars