Written by Jessica Fellowes — It’s 12 January 1920. Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of the famous Florence Nightingale, boards a train. She settles herself, and the train starts to move. But as they leave the station and head towards another we are told that this is the last time anyone will see her alive.
The Mitford Murders is the latest by Jessica Fellowes, known for her best-selling novelisations of the hit television show Downton Abbey. It begins a new series with each book focusing on one of the six Mitford sisters. They were an extraordinary group of aristocratic women, whose controversial lives were documented in many newspaper and magazine articles through the mid- to late-20th century. The book is fun and feels like a mixture of Golden Age mystery, a Nancy Mitford novel (for she wrote humorous books) and a big budget BBC miniseries. Because of its throwback influences, we’ve included it here as part of Classics in September.
After Miss Shore’s departure, the story winds back a few weeks. We meet our heroine Louisa Cannon, a 17-year-old girl out and about at Christmas time. Her washer woman mother is ill, her father deceased, and Louisa is a kind and earnest young girl. What could be trite and cliched here is not – rather Fellowes constructs a likable and believable protagonist.
Happenstance has Louisa bump into a friend, Jennie, who is with none other than Nancy Mitford. They all begin to talk. The wonderful Nancy, a teenager herself, relays an anecdote about how the nursery maid has run off with the butcher’s son causing scandal at Asthall Manor, the estate where the Mitfords live. The characterisation here is succinct and compelling.
Louisa’s uncle plays the villain early on, trying to oppress his niece for his own gain. She longs to run away from her life of poverty and uses the vacancy at the Mitfords’ manor as a way to escape her uncle. Her attempt is initially thwarted but she does escape and lands at Asthall Manor as the new nursery maid for the Mitfords.
Nancy Mitford was the most famous of the Mitfords, and so the series leads off with her. She’s seen as young and precocious, chatty and good-hearted, and becomes the instant best friend of Louisa. There is a wonderful Nancy Drew quality about Nancy in these pages and she is as lovable here as she is in her own writing. Shore’s disappearance draws the two girls in because Louisa was on the train that fateful day. Two railway police, Guy Sullivan and his partner Harry, take the case. The men have aspirations beyond their station as railway officers and hope that solving it will be their big break. Meanwhile, Nancy and Louisa carry on their own investigation in parallel as accidental sleuths.
However it is Louisa’s coming of age at Asthall Manor that takes up the bulk of the narrative. While this is sweet and touching it will not satisfy crime fiction lovers who want mystery and suspense. Curiously, there is little mention of World War I and its devastation, which is hard to understand given the period. This is cosy crime fiction with too many cushions and has the feel of a young adult novel that too often drags. The end may surprise you, but those with a keen eye will piece it together about half way through.
The Mitford Murders is a decent love letter to the Golden Age, with some 21st century sensibilities that add a contemporary touch. It is impossible to not like this book, but if you are hoping for something as quirky as a Mitford sister or as classic as an Agatha Christie novel you’ll be disappointed. It’s a light and entertaining read best saved for when it gets cold outside and you need something to cosy up with.
For something similar, but featuring Agatha Christie as the central character this time, try A Talent For Murder by Andrew Wilson.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars