Today’s read is a WW2 mystery set at Bletchley park and focuses on a typist named Honey Deschamps. She begins receiving packages. Some sent by messenger, others seemingly sent to the wrong hut and re-delivered by the enigmatic Felix Plaidstow. The post marks for these packages come from Leningrad, which has been overrun by the Germans. Inside them there are various pieces of amber, which are eventually shown to contain a hidden message of sorts. Honey is sure that they are coming from her estranged father who she has never met. All she knows of him comes from her older brother, who has shared stories of their father’s Russian heritage and his connection with the amber room. She is unable to solve the riddle of the packages, but who can she trust to help? In a paranoid atmosphere where the most innocent of questions could land you as a traitor, how can she get to the bottom of the mystery?
In a nutshell I would say this is a book which has several interesting premises, but unfortunately, I do not think they were executed effectively enough. For instance, the opening pages have Honey watching Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which was an adaptation of Francis Iles’ Before the Fact. This film colours Honey’s perceptions of things and people and in some ways she begins to metamorphose into the female lead’s role. I liked the idea of this, but I think the level of mirroring between film and life for Honey, was too much and for such a long book, opens up a vein of extra knowledge for those who know the film and the original book. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why I did not warm to Honey so much, as she does fulfil the hapless female role rather too well.
However, one positive of the book is its deftness at conveying what it was like to live and work in Bletchley park and its surrounding village. The more technical side of the work that took place there does not overwhelm the piece, but the reader feels comfortable in their understanding of Honey’s role there and the lingo that was used between departments. Ribchester also seems keen to use her novel as space for exploring the discrimination women faced within Bletchley. I have no doubt that this was a very real problem and a good topic for a story, but for me I think it needed a non-crime fiction story of its own. In this one it felt forced in alongside the espionage/thriller main plot. It didn’t mesh effectively and all it did was make the story run on too long. Pacing is definitely an issue with this story, as in this 350+ page book the narrative is slow in unfolding information and action about the central mystery and the gender theme came across as a form of padding and as a distraction from the mystery plot. To do it justice as I said it needed its’ own book.
Despite referencing authors such as Ethel Lina White and John Dickson Carr, as well as mentioning and discussing detective novels and what readers want from them, this book does not present a similar puzzle. This is a shame as I think an interesting and intriguing puzzle mystery could have been developed out of the book’s plot. Instead of the reader being allowed to figure much out, they just have to wait until Honey has another random brainwave which delivers an out of the hat new theory about what is going on or they have to wait until Honey gets herself into a pickle to see what is really going on. The final solution does yield an interesting twist, but the ‘and it was all a dream’ vibe to the closing pages ensures a somewhat more deflated feeling for the reader. A shorter novel could have given the book a punchier ending with a lot of clout.
Calendar of Crime: December (3) Primary action takes place in this month