Gwendolyn Bainbridge and Iris Sparks attend a mutual friend’s wedding and hit it off immediately, both taking credit for the match. After a lovely lunch the pair decide to go into business together opening The Right Sort Marriage Bureau in Mayfair, London in 1946. Their services are much sought after and their pairings have lead to many happy marriages so far. They both have the ability to size people up and get a clear reading of personalities and secrets being withheld.
Iris doesn’t talk about her training and time spent during the War. But she’s got a lot of particular skills useful for tracking down a murder suspect. Her accents, ability to blend in, glean information, and create cover stories serve her well for the undercover work she gets pulled into with Gwen.
Gwen is a war widow and mother to a six-year old boy. After the death of her beloved husband, Gwen is sent to a sanitarium by her aristocratic in-laws who take custody of her son. Gwen now lives in their home, feeling like a guest who can’t do anything for herself. Determined to prove herself and make a life for her son, she throws herself into pairing people up.
One afternoon a young lady named Tillie La Salle arrives hoping to find her perfect match, getting her out of her East End life and making her a proper lady. Iris is immediately suspicious of her perfect nylon stockings – a rarity found in ration-filled London post-WWII. She knows Tillie is probably dealing in black market goods but decides to find her a husband anyway because she is a polite young lady who can pay the matching fee.
A week later, Tillie is found murdered, stabbed in the heart. The main suspect is Tillie’s first match from the Right Sort Marriage Bureau. However, Gwen and Iris know mild-mannered Dickie Trower, the man they matched Tillie with, would never kill her. He has no reason to and he is not the type. The pair begin investigating on their own to prove his innocence and find the real killer. This will clear an innocent man and redeem their good business name.
The writing is clever and sharp. The jokes are lobbed one after another with perfect upper crust English decorum, of course. The banter between Gwen and Iris is truly delightful and laugh out loud enjoyable. But don’t be fooled by that humor, this is a well crafted, twisty, complicated cozy murder mystery where nothing bloody and untoward happens on the page. The cerebral delights of Gwen and Iris let them follow clues, track down suspects, and go up against Scotland Yard. Along the way, we piece together people from Iris’ past including two of her three ex-fiancés and see her many useful war skills come into play. While befriending Tillie’s group of friends and the black market spivs she was working for, Iris is able to get herself and Gwen on the inside to hopefully solve Tillie’s murder.
The postwar time period is well-drawn and a perfect background to set this series. Rationing is hard on everyone. The bombed out houses and streets are still in disrepair. The people are war worn, happy to be alive, and looking for happiness and love. And our heroines are both changed from their experiences. They’ve lost people they love and the independence the war offered Iris is now not as accepting.
This is the first in the Sparks and Bainbridge Mystery series. The follow up, A Royal Affair, just came out. Allison Montclair is a pseudonym and the literary world is trying desperately to figure out who she might be.