Written by Graham Ison — It’s the summer of 1918 and people are tired of a war which was supposed to over by Christmas four years earlier. On the Western Front, the Germans are finally on the back foot, but in London the war against crime still goes on. Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle of the Whitehall Division of the Metropolitan Police is called in to investigate the death of an attractive married woman whose husband is away serving in the navy. The autopsy reveals that she was strangled. Equally revealing is the fact – provided by a nosy neighbour – that Mrs Georgina Cheney was, to use the wonderful contemporary expression, ‘no better than she ought to be’. In modern parlance, she had been using her husband’s absence to bestow her favours on a succession of young men.
Hardcastle and his long suffering colleague DS Marriott soon find that the list of possible suspects is nearing the size of a platoon. As they whittle away at the alibis, they are given the runaround by the late Mrs Cheney’s maid, who seems to change her story as often as she does her frocks. Before too long the capricious Miss Hannah Clarke, apparently with the blessing of the newly bereaved Commander Robert Cheney, has started wearing her late mistress’s best gowns, and appears to have the run of the house. Clearly she is up to no good, but she disappears before Hardcastle can find out the truth. It also seems that the boxes ‘Attractive wealthy woman’, ‘husband away at the war’, and ‘dead’ are ticked in several more cases, adding to Hardcastle’s confusion.
Hardcastle’s callow underling DC Catto takes a trip down to the seaside town of Worthing and this turns the mystery on its head. His pursuit of Miss Clarke, who is operating under several aliases, comes to an abrupt and tragic end. Hardcastle and Marriott descend on the reluctant Sussex Constabulary, upset a few apple carts, but finally solve the crime.
The period detail in this, like all other Hardcastle books, is impeccable, even down to the introduction of one or two real life characters. They include the eminent pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, and the man who was later to become one of the most celebrated policemen of his era – Fred Wensley. There is also great subtlety. At one point, Hardcastle and Marriott have to visit a recruiting office. It is dusty and almost deserted, and with this brief description, we know that this is a country where the clamour and enthusiasm for war is nothing but a distant memory.
Ison has set recent Hardcastle books in a non-chronological sequence through the war years. Men are away fighting, wives are left at home to their own devices. Much as I enjoyed the book – and I am a confirmed and unashamed fan of Hardcastle – I do wonder if the particular seam, where the curmudgeonly DDI seeks his murderer from the ranks of His Majesty’s Forces, isn’t in danger of being mined too often. Hardcastle and Marriott’s path to the office of The Provost Marshal is certainly well worn, and the theme of skulduggery involving an attractive woman, who may be a war widow or whose husband is away fighting in some foreign field, is certainly one we have encountered before. That aside, this is a well plotted and wonderfully crafted piece of crime fiction. With just enough dark observations by Hardcastle, particularly about contemporary sexual morality, and a chilling end to the story, Hardcastle’s Quartet is lifted well away from being cosy nostalgia.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars