Long before she became the doyenne of Scottish crime fiction, Val McDermid worked as a journalist. Printer’s ink snuck into her veins back then—in 1979 she summons up the profane newsroom banter, the groan of the printing presses gearing up, and the adrenaline rush of seeing your story on the newsstands as vividly as if it were yesterday.
It was a lot more exciting than sitting in front of a screen in your sweatpants and hitting Send, as we learn right off the bat when young reporter Allie Burns witnesses a New Year’s baby being born on a train, the furious mother cursing a blue streak.
An ambitious new hire at Glasgow’s Daily Clarion, where the competition is fierce and mostly male, Allie dashes off the story in fluent tabloid-ese and quickly learns the rules of the game, though she has no intention of being pigeonholed as a women’s-section writer. She finds an affinity with fellow reporter Danny Sullivan, who has a terrier’s instinct for a story but can’t make the words flow on the page as effortlessly as Allie can. Together they make a tenacious, even reckless investigative team, inspired by their patron saints, Woodward and Bernstein.
Their first big splash at the Clarion pushes boundaries and creates a few enemies. It’s followed by an investigation into a would-be terror cell of Scottish nationalists, where the risks intensify and the ethics become murkier. This time, Danny finds himself on a high wire without a net, just out of his partner’s reach.
The newsroom atmospherics alone make 1979 a standout in McDermid’s impressive body of work, but the raucous workplace is just the backdrop for Allie’s and Danny’s nuanced personal lives and the dangerous journalistic game the pair have chosen to play. The book is also a funny and affectionate farewell to the 70s, rendered so authentically it could have been written on a manual typewriter.
It took a major leap of faith for parents to send their small children away from London for safekeeping in the hands of strangers during the Blitz. But the pain of separation was outweighed by the hope that their children would live and thrive in the countryside, far from German bombs.
That was the hope anyway. In 1941, one such group of little evacuees boarded a train for an especially grand destination, Agatha Christie’s getaway home in Devon, known as “Greenway.” Lori Rader-Day spins this intriguing tidbit into an absorbing historical mystery that mingles fictional events and characters with some of the real people involved—the 10 children, the chaperone couple who rented the manor house to shelter them, and even Christie herself.
The story focuses on two volunteer nurses, christened “Bridey” and “Gigi” by their supervisor since both are supposedly named Bridget. The traumatized and guilt-ridden Bridey is fleeing London after having lost her family in the Blitz, while Gigi is her opposite number—cool, darkly glamorous, and completely indifferent to children. They become unlikely friends, both questioning Greenway as a safe haven. (Its proximity to the English Channel makes them sitting ducks for the Germans.) But they—or, at least, Bridey—do their best to keep their charges safe and healthy in a celebrated stranger’s imposing home.
Their uneasy routine is broken when a man washes up dead on the quay nearby. W.W. II served as cover for all manner of sins and criminal shenanigans, and as more alarming incidents crop up, Bridey’s suspicions about a local character begin to grow.
Questions thrum persistently just beneath the surface of the narrative: Who is the enigmatic Gigi and what is she really up to? Will the tiny children, already forgetting their parents as the weeks go by, survive their tenure at Greenway unscathed? And what is the frightening figure one of them sees in the woods?
Rader-Day accomplishes something special here. Death at Greenway is neither a Christie pastiche nor a gimmick, and no character is a type, a pitfall in historical fiction. Each one is drawn with delicacy and care, and though the author did her research, it’s been organically synthesized into the novel. Even Mrs. Mallowan (as Christie preferred to be called at home), who makes a cameo appearance toward the end, is believably human, awkward in her silver brooch and saggy sweater. During wartime everyone is vulnerable, even behind the walls of a mystery writer’s fortress.
Not long ago, John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) explored similar territory in The Secret Guests, in which the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret are evacuated, unwisely as it turns out, to an Irish island. Well, that may have happened. That book featured the Anglo-Irish inspector St. John Strafford, who then took center stage in last year’s Snow. Had Black-Banville walked away for good from his much-admired Quirke series, last heard from in 2015?
Fans of the melancholy Dublin pathologist can rejoice, because he has returned, contentedly married to an Austrian psychiatrist and vacationing in Spain. Could the chronically pessimistic, off-and-on alcoholic actually be … happy? The answer seems to be yes. He takes a fancy to a local white wine—it doesn’t count as alcohol to the Jameson-loving Quirke—strolls around in a new Panama hat, and marvels at his luck at having wed such a patient and lovely woman.
But there has to be a fly in the pintxos, and it arrives in the form of a dead woman, his daughter’s friend April Latimer, who was supposedly murdered by her brother several years earlier. During an emergency-room visit, Quirke spots her doppelgänger at a local hospital, where she appears to have been resurrected as a doctor. He can’t help but poke the viper’s nest of intrigue and corruption that still surrounds April’s monstrous family by relaying his sighting to the Dublin police, which only sounds like a good idea.
Quirke in love—and on vacation!—is quite a concept, which allows Banville to explore another side of this familiar character, and he takes his time with it, drawing out the humor of the brooding Irishman blooming gruffly under the Basque sun. However, shadows still lurk; in letting Quirke drop his guard, Banville opens the door to trouble.
Fans will enjoy the lighter tone and ironic shift of mood, but despite Banville’s graceful way with backstory, new readers might want to start with Elegy for April, its 2010 predecessor, to fully appreciate April in Spain.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City