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by Frances Brody
Minotaur Books, February 2015
372 pages
ISBN: 1250037042

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In A WOMAN UNKNOWN, the latest of her Kate Shackleton mysteries, Frances Brody once again presents a complicated puzzle, but as with the earlier novels in the series, the plot is only one of the drawing points: strong characters and a well-portrayed historical setting add equally to the enjoyment.

Kate Shackleton, war widow turned private investigator, has always declined cases that involve husbands or wives checking up on their spouses, but for her partner Sykes, she decides to make an exception and look into the case of the possibly straying Deidre Fitzpatrick. Meanwhile, Kate's former love interest and Scotland Yard inspector Marcus Charles is in town on mysterious business and has asked Kate to aid him in some undercover work at the races. Before long, Marcus and Kate are both investigating a murder - the same murder - but from different sides of the official line. While Marcus has requested Kate's assistance to some extent, he also makes quite a point of keeping Kate out of the picture which, of course, only means Kate has to make a point of her own: solve the case and do it before Marcus does. Using her charm, her contacts, and her formidable intelligence, Kate pieces together a complicated puzzle involving the new divorce laws, old flames, and a wide array of questionable characters, including a shady American, a talented but flawed photographer, an heiress, and a rags-to-middle-class charmer.

As with her previous novels in this series, Brody keeps the tone light but takes on some fairly serious subjects, including women's rights and their changing roles in a changing society. She also makes it clear that England following the First World War was changing in more ways than in its attitudes toward women. During the investigation, Kate and Sykes both come into close contact with the desperately poor and/or homeless, and Kate, being sharply aware of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, observes that she's surprised England made it through the war without a revolution. Then, there are the new divorce laws that are at the heart of the story. These new laws allowed a wife to sue for divorce if her husband was unfaithful, without having to prove abandonment or abuse as well, and many husbands were willing or even eager to provide such proof in order to end a marriage. While the new laws may have made a divorce easier to obtain, love in general has always been complicated, and it's love - in many forms - that is central to this mystery. On her way to discovering the murderer, Kate discovers that a number of relationships aren't what they seem, and the complications of the heart, of course, cut across gender and class, wealth and poverty and everything around and between.

Although Brody shows us that not all about the post-WWI world is fashion and fun, she evokes the period wonderfully—and does it deftly with quick mentions of hat styles or motor cars, so it's seemingly effortless but very effective. So, too, are the characterizations. Kate, especially, but even some of the more minor players, is richly complicated, but her depth of character doesn't get in the way of the plot. And while it would be quite possible to begin reading the series with this novel, there are some spoilers here: all of the main characters and their relationships have grown over the course of the series, and to start here would be to get the cart ahead of the horse in several instances, particularly that of the Kate/Marcus relationship and of Kate's family life. That being said, Brody does a nice job of filling in the gaps and enabling a reader new to the series to easily figure out who's who and what's what, at least in the main. But these Kate Shackleton mysteries are such a delight, both from a puzzle-solving and a character and setting point of view, that it's worth starting at the beginning.

§ Meredith Frazier, a writer with a background in English literature, lives in Dallas, Texas

Reviewed by Meredith Frazier, January 2015

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