Book Review: The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley – a tense mystery that keeps you guessing

This novel is very similar in structure to The Guest List, Foley’s later book (which I reviewed last year) so it’s hard not to make comparisons. Both use the same before and now time shifts and leave the reader guessing not only who the murderer is – there are multiple candidates – but also the identity of the victim. The cast of characters – victims, witnesses and suspects – is cut off from the world by a weather event in both books. So beginning the earlier book, I asked myself, should I feel a little short-changed?

But in no time The Hunting Party swept me off into the story, because Foley is superb at creating tension and drama. The scenario is a group of nine friends who take the train for a weekend away in Scotland to see in the New Year at a remote hunting lodge. Most of them have been friends since university, although it is Emma, a more recent addition to the group, who arranges everything. She’s here as she’s Mark’s girlfriend. Mark is Julian’s best mate and Julian is married to Miranda, and these two are the alpha couple of the group. Julian and Miranda are fabulously wealthy and incredibly good looking. They seem to have it all and as we know that means trouble, particularly with their continued disregard for other people’s feelings.

The lodge is run by two live-in staff. Heather, recovering from loss, prefers her own company and the quiet of the remote setting. Doug is also running away from something – a checkered past that includes PTSD from his stints as a soldier in Afghanistan. His past is littered with violence, and he’s in charge of the shooting. You can’t help wondering what it might take to set him off. The presumptuousness and bad behaviour of a group of drunk friends might just do the trick.

Not long into the story there is a snow storm which turns the hunting lodge and its grounds into an island. When a body is found, emergency services are unable to send help until the weather lets up, leaving Heather and Doug to manage the situation – two very fragile people.

As I said, Foley is a master at building tension, the before and now time-frame keeps you guessing, but slowly fills you in with what’s going on in the heads of several characters, as well as their interactions with others. The party of friends are mostly people you wouldn’t want to spends a lot time with. There are supreme displays of arrogance and one-up-manship, and multiple secrets. Games of Twister and Truth or Dare oiled with an abundance of alcohol as well as drugs don’t help. It’s easy to empathise with Heather and even Doug, who appear vulnerable. Can they trust each other enough to keep things from boiling over?

The story bounces along to a tense ending where more violence is set to happen and the method and motives keep you guessing till the end. Overall I had to feel happy with the story as I was well entertained. The audiobook version I listened to was well-done and brought the book to life superbly. But I wonder if Lucy Foley will break out with a new type of story for her next novel. A better class of beach read, I’m going to give The Hunting Party a three and a half out of five.

Book Review: I Couldn’t Love You More by Esther Freud – three women and the secret that divides them

Esther Freud’s new novel looks at the impact of a secret adoption on three generations of women. When Kate tries to find her birth mother, she’s not really at a good place emotionally to deal with what she might find. Her relationship with Matt is going through some difficulties and she has her daughter, Freya, to consider. Freya seems to be oddly obsessed with death for one so young. And then there’s the idea in the back of her head – why did her mother give her away? And it’s too difficult to discuss all this with her adoptive mother, who could so easily feel betrayed.

If you could give me … I try out the phrases as I help prepare the lunch, but my mother is explaining the best way to make gravy and I don’t interrupt. Afterwards she takes Freya to say goodbye to the bees. She has three hives, white clapboard, a surprising hobby for someone so concerned with peril.”

The story flips through the years to tell the story of Kate’s mother, Rosaleen, beautiful and headstrong, who escapes Ireland at eighteen for London. Her much older lover, an up and coming sculptor, has found her a job at a London newspaper where she works in the mail department, although that’s not what she tells them back home. Her family believe Rosaleen is a journalist, and her name will appear in bylines in the Express any day.

Meanwhile back in Ireland, Rosaleen’s mother Aoife (pronounced Eefa), can’t help missing her eldest daughter. Her story takes us through her marriage to Cashel, whose strict notions of propriety echo that of many Irish households in the mid 1900s. A girl who becomes pregnant is no better than she should be and must be hidden away in shame, her baby taken to a respectable family. We see the other side of this, the convents who ran laundries on the back of the free labour young pregnant girls offer in return for board and secrecy.

This is a story that has been told before, but Freud makes it fresh through her empathy for her characters. We’re taken back to the sixties, and a slice of the artistic Demi-monde, through the eyes of a young girl who for a budding reporter, doesn’t ask nearly enough questions. We’re also back in rural Ireland, with farming and rain and the endless round of chores. And then there’s Freya’s world, herself an artist, working as an art therapist, when maybe she needs a bit of therapy herself.

It’s always a joy to read Esther Freud and this novel didn’t disappoint. It took me a while to settle into the style though. I know we read a lot of books with multiple narrative viewpoints and these were clear enough through chapter headings. But the time switches confused me a little to begin with. Perhaps the disjointed time frame mirrors Kate’s state of mind – she doesn’t know where she is with Matt, her job, and the past keeps intruding on her thoughts.

If you want to read a book that takes you right into the hearts of its characters, revealing their pain – there’s a lot of it here – and their struggles to make a future, I Couldn’t Love You More is a terrific read. It’s also a powerful reminder of historic injustices against women and that the feminist movement has come a long way. The scenes in the convent that takes in Rosaleen are horrific. It’s a moving story told simply and elegantly and after a break since Mr Mac and Me (seven years!), worth the wait. Let’s hope there’s another book around the corner as Freud’s one of my favourites. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Appeal by Janice Hallett – page-turner told in emails and texts

The epistolary novel has become a popular trend mirroring the many options we have for communicating these days. But I’m not sure I’ve come across one that’s a murder mystery before. The Appeal deals with a murder that has been tried in court, a perpetrator found guilty, the case supposedly done and dusted. Fearing a miscarriage of justice, Roderick Tanner, QC, calls upon two articled clerks, Charlotte and Femi, to plough through the evidence to try and establish what really happened.

The story is told via this correspondence between suspects, a chronological collection of mostly emails between witnesses as well as texts between the legal team. Throw in a few police interviews and newspaper articles and you’ve got an interesting mix.

We don’t know who was killed until late in the story, but Hallett builds a picture of a small community with, at its heart, an alpha family – Martin and Grace Hayward who own the Grange and manage the Fairway Players, an amateur theatre group. They have all the status that goes with their stately home. Grace Hayward is a former actress who steals every scene when on stage and Martin directs.

Among the players, Issy Beck writes a lot of emails, cheery little notes of support particularly to her new colleague at the hospital, Samantha and her husband Kel Greenwood. The Greenwoods are recently back in England after years working with aid agencies in Africa and there are hints they left under a cloud. But Issy, lonely, mousy and lacking any kind of standing with her colleagues or community, is determined to be Sam’s friend, encouraging her and Kel to audition for the new play.

But barely have the Greenwoods joined the Fairway Players and the troupe started learning their lines than Martin Hayward drops the bombshell that their grand-daughter Poppy has a rare form of brain cancer. The emails track the huge support the players and other locals show the Haywards, and suddenly the story is more about the massive fundraising that takes place to pay for ground-breaking treatment from the United States. A lot of money is involved and potential complications of trust and misuse are thrown into the mix.

Janice Hallett does a terrific job of evoking the personalities and motives of her characters through what they write to each other. The confusion and questions Femi and Charlotte reveal in their text messages to each other mirror what you feel as a reader, but slowly it all begins to make sense, answering the five main questions Tanner asks of his clerks. Police interview transcripts and reports, oddly enough, don’t shed a lot of light as people are obviously lying or haven’t a clue, which makes the book seem more realistic somehow.

I wasn’t sure I would have picked up a mystery written in this format if I hadn’t read glowing reviews of The Appeal. Through Hallett’s skill, instead of hampering the reader, the emails, texts and sundry correspondence cohere to create a gripping page-turner and I whipped through the novel, eager to see if the things I’d noticed were as important as I thought they might be. I came away thinking the book was really very clever and very well done. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Black Out by John Lawton – noirish wartime thriller

I couldn’t remember why I’d put Black Out on my Must Read list. It must have been recommended in glowing tones somewhere as it doesn’t have the look of the kind of book I normally read. But when I eventually picked it up, I was soon hooked. And that’s in spite of it beginning with a grisly discovery – a severed arm on a bomb site.

We’re in London, 1944, and the Blitz has turned whole blocks into rubble. You’d think it would be easy to pass off a killing as death by explosion and get away with it. Fortunately, Sergeant Troy of Scotland Yard knows murder when he sees it. Soon he’s connected it to another death and a disappearance, men who have recently turned up in Britain from Germany. Why would anyone bring them across in the middle of a war just to kill them in this cloak and dagger way?

The plot will involve the American secret service (Office of Strategic Services – which will soon be the CIA) as well as an underground group of Communist sympathisers. There is not one femme fatale , but two, one of them rather short and the other rather tall.

Sergeant Freddie Troy is himself an interesting character. The son of Russian emigré parents, his father made his fortune in newspapers. So Troy went to Harrow, but eschewed university for the police. At twenty-eight, he has decided to stick with the police rather than enlisting in one of the services. Why should he fight for a country that interned his older brother and his uncle? But London in the Blitz is no picnic. Here’s Troy getting a bit of a lecture from older brother, Rod.

‘…The war was, as you put it, good to me. I rather think I enjoyed it. But you didn’t did you?’ You got shot – “
‘Twice.”
‘Stabbed.’
‘Four times.’
‘Bombed.’
‘Twice again.’
‘Beaten up.’
‘More times than I can count. Look, Rod, what’s the point you’re tying to make? You’re not telling me all this tosh just to let me know I missed a trick by not volunteering.’

While I tired a little of the women in Troy’s life, the tall and the short, and even Troy is a cold fish at times, I did enjoy other characters immensely. The pathologist, Kolankievicz, is a wonderful creation with his wild ear hair and colourful language; you don’t want to mess with Superintendent Onions who is bluntly North of England and bull-headed, and then there’s Troy’s side-kick, DC Wildeve who has a gift for intuition and general smarts. Troy and Wildeve are known at the Yard as ‘the tearaway toffs’. Even the scruffy kids who find the arm in scene one are each interesting in their own way, while there’s an eccentric Russian uncle who holds forth on Speaker’s Corner.

Troy’s kind of interesting too, trying to manage all the people in his life and failing miserably. He’s a loner at heart and often his own worst enemy. The story bounces along with a good mix of action, police deduction and Troy getting things wrong, with short, sharp chapters that make for an easy read. But most of all, I enjoyed the smart writing. The dialogue is crisp and a bombed-out London evocatively described.

Black Out is the first book in the series and with the war coming to a close and a peace that will be challenging once the Iron Curtain comes down, there is plenty of potential character development for Troy in the books that follow – although the books seem to jump around a bit chronologically. There’s lots to enjoy here and I shall certainly check in with Troy again. Black Out gets a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Offing by Benjamin Myers – an unlikely friendship in post-war England

This is one of those small novels that deals with some big things and ties them together in a beautiful package – the perfect little book really. The Offing is told from the point of view of sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard starting off in the summer of 1946. The world has been turned on its head by war and people are still struggling to get back to normal life. Robert, a Yorkshire coal minder’s son, is destined for the pit, but before his exam results arrive, he decides to pack a sleeping bag and some spare socks and explore the land beyond his home town. He picks up odd jobs here and there, and turns up one day on Dulcie Piper’s doorstep.

Dulcie lives near the sea, surrounded by fields, with a vegetable garden, a larder full of delicatessen items she’s cadged in various ways, and more than a few overflowing bookshelves. She’s an eccentric, getting on a bit, with only Butler, her German shepherd for company. When Robert appears, hot, thirsty and in need of a meal, she invites him to tea and he stays on for his first experience of lobster. And so begins a rich and rewarding friendship.

Any reader would imagine that Dulcie has life well sorted – she’s pretty self-sufficient, grows and forages the ingredients for wonderful meals, has her books and memories. But as Robert stays on and helps around the place – fixing up the garden that is threatened by weeds, and later rebuilding a dilapidated summer-house – he slowly teases from Dulcie her story. And it’s one of tragedy. Dulcie on her part introduces Robert to literature, finding the poetry that will light up Robert’s world and help him consider a life beyond the pit.

‘They made us read Shakespeare.’
‘The sonnets?’
‘Romeo and Juliet, I think it was.’
Dulcie screwed up her face. ‘That’s not poetry,’ she said. ‘That’s archaic drama, written to be performed on theatre stages, not read aloud in stuffy classrooms. Presented incorrectly and out of context it will put you off for life, but a good poem shucks the oyster shell of one’s mind to reveal the pearl within. It gives words to those feelings whose definitions are forever beyond the reach of verbal articulations.’

Dulcie’s conversations with Robert encourage him to think and be more expressive, while revealing all kinds of interesting anecdotes – the time she met D H Lawrence; memories of visiting Germany with her lover before the war. This is balanced by Robert’s experiences of the natural world, his encounters with deer and badgers as well as his thoughts about Dulcie. Nature is rendered vividly as summer wanes into autumn with all the colour and drama you could ask for, set against the shadow of an all-too-recent war.

I can imagine that this novel would make a lovely little film, and maybe that’s because of the way Benjamin Myers builds memorable settings and interesting characters. It’s a gentle read, taking its time to draw you in, but the writing is exquisite. You’ll want to pick up a poem or go for a walk in the countryside after this. Maybe eat something fresh out of the garden. It reminded me of those classics that evoke the English countryside as a foil against which human behaviour plays out – Thomas Hardy, L P Hartely and Laurie Lee, and probably D H Lawrence, spring to mind. As I said before it’s the perfect little book, with a perfect little score of five out of five from me.

Book Review: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

I’ve read a few books where lighthouses appear in the story, often in a metaphorical sense as an evocation of hope or constancy, or even desire. These ideas also appear in Emma Stonex’s novel The Lamplighters, but here the story follows the lives of lighthouse keepers and their families and the very real lighthouse which is the men’s home for a large part of their working year. Inspired by real events, the book takes us into the world of three lighthouse keepers in 1972, and what happens when their lighthouse is found abandoned, the keepers missing, but the door locked and bolted from inside.

You have to be certain kind of person to be in the lighthouse service. Principal Keeper, Arthur Black, likes the quiet and solitude of his eight-week stints on the remote lighthouse known as the Maiden. The service gives the men a cottage on the nearby Cornish coast, but he doesn’t seem to miss his wife, Helen, who waits for his return. He’s considered a good man, able and sound and obviously kindly, but have all his years in lighthouses taken their toll?

Postcards never finished; postcards never sent. I tear them up and drop them into the sea so I can watch them float away. In another life, a lucky one, I see the pieces washing onto shore. She’ll find them, gather them to her, put them back together. It will all make sense.

Assistant Keeper, Bill Walker, is from a family of lighthouse keepers and was never given the choice to be anything else. You can tell he’s had enough but then he’s almost at the end of his eight-week stint, so naturally he’s looking forward to his time on shore. At home with three young children, his wife Jenny finds the eight weeks the hardest, and fills her days filling the cake tins, and drinking.

The third keeper is the young Supernumerary Assistant Keeper, Vincent Bourne. He’s had a tough life, in and out of foster homes, and then in and out of prison. But when he meets Michelle, he determines to turn his life around and have the proper family he’d missed out on. The Service offers him a chance and when he’s made Assistant Keeper, he’ll get a cottage too. So while it might be easy to blame the mysterious disappearances on bad-lot Vinnie, he seems the least likely to lose it and do something rash.

The story flips to 1992, when an adventure-thriller writer revisits the events of twenty years before, planning to write a book and solve the puzzle. Told through the viewpoints of the three women left with no answers, but a financial to keep quiet, secrets start to emerge. The tension escalates, as the story switches back to the days leading up to the tragedy, as well as describing the sensitive relationships of the women on land. The ending is taut and you rush through the pages to find out what happened, in a small way comforted in the resolution for those left behind.

This is a masterful novel, written in elegant and at times poetic prose – maybe it’s hard to avoid if you are writing about the sea and the weighty themes we traditionally associate with lighthouses. The novel makes these themes all the more real but in new ways. It’s a psychological novel too, getting inside the heads of the men and their women, picking out their motives and triggers, their passions and resentments.

Emma Stonex has done her research well and the books she lists as inspiration are books that look well worth a read. I can’t help thinking that lighthouse keepers are forgotten heroes and want to know more. I’m going to stick my neck out and give The Lamplighters a rare five out five.

Book Review: The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley

The Clergyman’s Wife makes me want to pick up Pride and Prejudice again, as it revisits the story of Lizzy Bennett’s friend, Charlotte Lucas. As you may recall, Charlotte is twenty-seven when she meets Mr Collins in the Austen novel. She is too plain to have sparked any interest from a suitor and without a dowry is doomed to spinsterhood. When Collins fails to snare one of the older Bennett girls, he settles for Charlotte, and she for him.

Greeley’s novel picks up the story several years later, showing Charlotte as the young mother of baby Louisa, living at the parsonage on Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s estate. Collins is still cringingly sycophantic towards his benefactress, passing on her advice to his wife about how to raise a baby and other domestic affairs. Lady Catherine is just as bossy and overbearing as ever. Charlotte passes her days quietly avoiding her husband if she can, but for the most part contented in her lot. She’s a sensible and pragmatic sort of girl.

When Lady Catherine bestows some rose bushes on the young couple, local farmer, Mr Travis, is given the job of ripping out a stump and preparing the flower bed. Charlotte chances upon him in the garden early one morning, Travis sweaty with exertion, Charlotte lugging a restless Louisa, both of them tousled and not yet dressed for the day. Travis and Charlotte strike up a conversation and as summer merges into autumn, a friendship develops.

The story is very much within the mind of Charlotte as she discovers feelings she has never experienced before and considers what it might be like to marry for love instead of convenience or duty. She had always said to herself she wasn’t a sentimental sort of person, but Travis has made her less than steady and distracts her thoughts. It is soon obvious he feels the same way for her.

The novel is very heartfelt and sympathetic to Charlotte and the sad events of her life she has had to hide from others. It examines the difficulties of being expected to live up to society’s expectations and how even the comparatively comfortably off can struggle to meet these demands. The powerlessness of women comes through again and again to say nothing of the poor, dependent as they are on the bounty of the likes of Lady Catherine, who will only see what she wants to see. She is such a loathsome creature, you want to shout at her.

I was a little disappointed that the scope of a couple of seasons gives Charlotte little opportunity to change her lot although we leave her with renewed determination – pragmatic yet again. But the novel brings rural England in the Regency period nicely to life, and you can’t help getting caught up in the emotions that run high. I was a little doubtful about the use of present tense, but soon got used to it – it doesn’t have to read like Austen, after all, and the storytelling nonetheless sounds authentic, only marred occasionally by the odd Americanism.

I love the character of Charlotte Collins – she has such a good heart, while striving in small ways to be her own person. She definitely deserves to have her story told at least as much as those Bennett girls that keep popping up in Pride and Prejudice sequels. The Clergyman’s Wife is Molly Greeley’s first book, a three and a half out of five read from me. I shall definitely seek out her next, The Heiress, which takes another shadowy character from Pride and Prejudice, poor Anne de Bourgh, the daughter of ghastly Lady Catherine, a seen-and-not-heard character who spends entire scenes, lolling on a chaise longue, often asleep. It will be interesting to see how Greeley wakes her up.

Book Review: The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

The Marwood and Lovett series is such a joy for anyone who loves a good mystery, with a historical setting that takes you there. Taylor’s series brings alive the nitty gritty of everyday life plus the machinations of the powerful at court. Set during the reign of Charles II, The Royal Secret has government agent James Marwood investigate the death of a former colleague, a Mr Abbott. He comes across the man in his cups and full of regret on his way from a gambling house.

When Abbott dies suddenly, it is hard not the think about the opening scene of the novel, where Abbott’s stepdaughter and a young maid plot his death by witchcraft. But the twenty-first century reader knows that the man’s death will be a lot more complicated than that. Another incident sees Marwood getting in Cat Lovett’s bad books when he takes her to the theatre and ogles the leading actress. The two have been friends and associates through several hair-raising adventures and now meet regularly for outings. Dating? I think not.

Cat has inherited her husband’s architecture business and at the theatre, meets her client, Mr Fanshaw, along with a Dutchman, Mr Van Riebeeck, a family connection of Fanshaw’s. Cat is charmed by Van Riebeeck, while Marwood takes an instant dislike to the man. The scene also introduces us to the world of the Dutch in England at the time and the political difficulties posed by rivalry between the Netherlands and France. This rivalry will come closer to home when Cat earns a commission to design a poultry-house for the King’s sister who lives at the French court. So many threads of historical interest.

The plot ramps up with plenty of action – James Marwood seems to attract trouble, as his suspicions around Van Riebeeck grow along with jealousy over Cat’s growing friendship with the man. There’s the usual tension of Cat and Marlow’s see-sawing relationship and Marwood is often in trouble with his own servants, which adds a degree of lightness.

While we get to see kings and their courts close up, their finery and excesses, Taylor doesn’t stint when it comes to describing the grubbiness of ordinary life in the 1600s. Characters puke, piss and evacuate their bowels in fairly graphic ways, not surprisingly when there are growing suspicions of poisonings. He throws in some other quirky details, such as the interest in collecting by the wealthy. Fanshaw, an avid collector, adds a disconsolate and elderly lion to his household, caged in the garden to impress visitors.

It’s a brilliant read, well-researched, pacy and as for the characters, I can’t get enough of Cat and Marwood – they are so lively and interesting. Sometimes you want to bang their heads together. But in a world where it is important to find favour in the right places, not just to succeed but to survive, they are refreshingly themselves and more inquisitive than is good for them. I can’t wait for the next book in the series. This one’s a four and a half out of five from me.

Man Booker Prize Musings

The Man Booker Prize is one of the highlights of the serious reader’s year. So when the long list comes out, as it did a couple of weeks ago, people begin to speculate. (Click here for the 2021 list.) I wish I was enough of a serious reader to read more of them and, in a mood to see what I may have missed, trawled through a list of previous winners. It was heartening to find I’d read quite a few so I’ve listed a few of my personal highlights.

Favourite Man Booker winners:
A tricky one this as they are so varied, but the most memorable for me are as follows:


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
This one’s special because it has an interesting historical background, loaded with atmospheric physical settings (Italy and the Egyptian desert), four complex and interesting main characters, a tragic love affair and gorgeous writing. You can tell Ondaatje is a fairly decent poet, the way he paints images with words.

Possession by A S Byatt (1990)
This dual time-frame novel about academic rivalry is subtitled ‘a romance’, but it is also a brilliant mystery. Two young academics – one English and one American, follow a paper trail to discover a little known romantic entanglement between two Victorian poets (loosely based on Christina Rossetti and possibly Tennyson or Browning). Terrific plotting makes this intelligent read hard to put down.

The Gathering by Anne Enright (2007)
This novel follows the Hegarty family as it comes together for a funeral in Ireland for one of its sons, Liam, who has taken his own life. Its narrator, Veronica, is also rather damaged and speculates about things that happened in the past to cause the death. An intelligent novel which looks at the human psyche and family interaction told in Enright’s unmistakably dry tone that is such a pleasure to read.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
One of the longer books on the list at 688 pages, yet for me it just whizzed by, bringing the court of Henry VIII to life and in particular, his man for getting stuff done, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel has a style you either love or hate, which is very vivid, present tense and right in Cromwell’s head.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)
I reviewed this book last January and still think about it – click Milkman for the post.

More Man Booker Mentions:
In 1986, Margaret Atwood’s shortlisted title, The Handmaid’s Tale, lost out to Kingsley Amis’s novel, The Old Devils.

I have read four of the shortlisted titles the year Iris Murdoch won the prize for The Sea, The Sea in 1978. My best effort yet, but remember I’ve had over forty years to get there. Including the winner, the other titles are: God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam; Jake’s Thing by Kingsley Amis and The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The longest Man Booker Prize winner I’ve read is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which won in 2013, and which took a bit of an effort, I must admit. I read the first half quickly and began to tire towards the end, but enjoyed it over all.

The shortest Man Booker Prize winner I have read is Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (at 140 pages) which won in 1979. Although without a word count, it is difficult to be sure as 2011’s winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is only 10 pages longer. If you factor in typography and layout, Barnes might pip Fitzgerald to the post for making every word count.

If you have any personal Man Booker favourites or interesting asides, do drop in with a comment.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

There have been quite a few novels telling the story of World War II female British agents dropped into France, and their resistance fighter counterparts, and they often make good reading. It was a time for women getting to do some gutsy jobs, involving danger and cunning – not the usual ‘keep the home fires burning’ roles they were often accustomed to. But what about the earlier war? Kate Quinn puts us in the picture with one particular network run by Alice Dubois (real name Louise de Bettignies) in German occupied France during the First World War.

Although The Alice Network is partly written through the eyes of a fictitious character – Evelyn Gardiner, a British spy (code name Marguerite Le Francois) – Dubois and her network of spies are also incorporated into the story. We first meet Eve years later as an ageing drunk with deformed hands, a bad temper and a tendency to wave her Luger around, firing off a round when startled.

It’s an evening in 1947 when nineteen-year-old New Yorker, Charlie St. Clair, hammers on Eve’s door demanding to be let in. It’s pouring with rain, and Charlie has escaped her mother during a visit to Europe for a completely different purpose. Charlie is determined to track down a long lost French cousin, Rose, angry that no one has found out what happened to Rose in the recent war. Without a death certificate or witness statement, she still hopes Rose is alive. Eve, working at a bureau that helped locate refugees, had corresponded with Charlie’s father about Rose giving no reason for hope.

That’s not the only problem for Charlie – she’s three month’s pregnant and was supposed to be going to a clinic for an abortion. But Charlie needs to track down Rose before it’s too late and take control of her own life. Eve is set to turn Charlie out into the street, but a new lead sparks her curiosity. Before long they form an unlikely alliance, heading to France with Eve’s Scottish hired help, Finn Kilgore, in his ageing Lagonda. Finn also has his own war story, which eventually emerges, but the narrative is mostly Eve’s and Charlie’s, flipping between WWI and 1947 to fill us in on the story of the Alice Network, and Charlie’s journey of discovery.

This is a nicely paced novel. The story of Eve’s war is a grim one, unfolding to reveal how women spies picked up gems of information about troop movements and planned attacks. Eve, with her stutter, looks naive and youthful, but as a waitress in the only decent restaurant in Lille, is an ideal spy with her ease in both French and German. There’s lots of tension here and the sudden switches to Charlie’s story give a bit of light relief. Although her’s is a sad story too, there’s a bit more fun in the way the three travellers interact and develop a grudging respect for each other. Things simmer between them until the past finally catches up with the present and everything comes to a dramatic finish.

I enjoyed the novel immensely as an escapist read, but was also really interested to learn more about the spy-ring run by Alice Dubois and the fate of those who were captured. Remembering that this is a time before women had the vote in Britain, it’s remarkable how these female agents were allowed to take on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. The execution of Edith Cavell, a nurse shot for aiding the escape of Allied soldiers, is a stark reminder that this wasn’t a game.

The characters of our three main players are both interesting and engaging, and the cliff-hanger chapter endings keep you racing through the story. It’s not surprising this novel has been extremely popular and well-recommended, and many will be eager to read Quinn’s new book: The Rose Code. The Alice Network is a four out of five read from me.