Anyone who has ever been to York will have been struck by the city’s palpable sense of history. It boasts Roman walls and medieval streets, with the ancient York Minster imperiously towering above it all. But it is more recent occurrences that have inspired Karen Charlton’s latest book.
Fans of this historical crime author will be familiar with her Detective Lavender series, set in Regency England (and we’ve reviewed several of them here on this site). But for Smoke and Cracked Mirrors, Charlton has cranked up the time machine and jumped forward a tad. It’s March 1940, to be precise, and Britain is in the grips of the ‘phoney war’ as the book begins.
So let’s meet Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Baker, who is reluctantly working as a store detective in one of York’s poshest shops. She’s keeping an eye on an elderly woman who has just filched a pricy cashmere cardigan when a whispered voice breaks her concentration. It’s Bobbie’s best friend, Jemma James, who has moved back to the city after her husband was posted as missing, presumed dead. Delighted to see each other again, the pair work as a team and the chance meeting ends with two shoplifters caught bang to rights.
Bobbie used to be employed in the local library, a job she loved, until her union activist father got locked up for assaulting one of the managers at his place of work and she was dismissed by the poisonous head librarian. Jemma needs a job now she’s back in Yorkshire, but the only roles on offer are working on munitions in one of the repurposed chocolate factories – and that sounds dangerous.
However, a solution may be in sight. The girls became friends in childhood because of their shared love of mystery stories – but when Bobbie suggests they set up their own detective agency it all seems like pie in the sky. Until, that is, their first client falls into the women’s laps.
How they get on with this case, and the ones that follow, makes for entertaining reading as the proprietors of Smoke and Cracked Mirrors fumble their way to success. There’s more than a hint of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency about this book, and that is not a criticism. Impetuous, vivacious Bobbie and sanguine, sensible Jemma are a fine pairing and to accompany them Charlton creates a compelling cast of supporting characters – with Jemma’s police officer brother Gabriel and freelance snapper Ricky Wilde as stand outs.
We’ll see bigamists, cheats, thieves and some downright despicable deeds as the story progresses, all set against the backdrop of wartime Yorkshire. You might guess the outcome of some of the mysteries before they’re fully revealed, but it’s an enjoyable journey all the same.
Charlton conjures up an image of life on the Home Front that is both moving and scary, but the darker moments are tempered with some light hearted scenes that will have you chuckling into your cocoa. At the heart of it all is a story of friendship, family ties and battling against the odds.
It can be a huge risk to leave one series behind and step into another in a completely different period of history, but Karen Charlton achieves the time hop with aplomb. Her trademark attention to detail is in full flow and the clever inclusion of the minutiae of everyday life in wartime creates an overarching sense of realism. Dialogue, too, is of the period.
There is another helping of the York Ladies’ Detective Agency Mystery series in the pipeline with Dancing with Dusty Fossils announced for November. As book one ends we are left with some rather tempting loose ends that need to be neatly tied in a bow. Fans of cosy crime fiction will be in their element here, as will those who enjoy reading historical novels set in more recent times.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars