War, Criminality, and The Right Sort of Man
By Neil Nyren
“Did your hunch prove correct?” asked Gwen.
“It did,” replied Iris, as she began typing her notes of the interview.
“What was it about?”
“Were her seams not straight?”
“The seams were straight,” said Iris. “The girl is crooked.”
It is June 1946 in London. The war is over, but just barely. The speakers are Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge, who have embarked just a few months previously on a new joint enterprise called The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. All of this sounds like a set-up for a nice, light, historical cozy, and there is no question that Allison Montclair’s THE RIGHT SORT OF MAN is full of wonderful charm and wit.
It is also full of a great deal more, however. Dark currents run everywhere. The death and destruction of the war has affected everything and everybody—as Gwen notes, “All of our stories nowadays end up with someone saying, ‘I’m sorry’”—and both Iris and Gwen are struggling not only with their pasts, but their futures. Those futures are about to encompass more violence and criminality than either of them could have imagined.
The two women are very different. Gwen is patrician and practical, but her life is a “velvet prison.” When her husband died in the war, she had a breakdown, went to a sanatorium for four months, and when she emerged, she found her imperious in-laws had assumed custody of her son, and it would take a court order to reverse it. She lives with them now, “and was allowed to interact with him as much as a mother might while having absolutely no maternal authority over his existence whatsoever.”
Iris, short, intense, definitely not patrician, lives in a flat paid for by her sometime lover. She worked for the War Office as a secretary, she says, but it is quite clear she was much more than that. She has skills she shouldn’t have—“that war-time training you never talk about,” notes Gwen—and seems to know a great deal about a great many things, some of them lethal. She also has nightmares, from which she awakes, staring up at the darkened ceiling, seeing the faces of dead girls.
The main difference between them, though, is something Iris explains in bed to her lover: “Goodness. She’s a good person. She’s actually a good person. I’m in business with a good person. Me. Who is not a good person. Who is neither a person who is good nor good at being a person. It’s laughable that I’m mixed up in the marriage-making business.”
She’s wrong, though. Her skills, paired with Gwen’s, turn out to be perfect, not only for marriage-making, but for the events that are about to engulf them. Iris is naturally nosy, she has that training, and her experiences have given her many helpful connections, in high places and low: “The latter are sometimes more useful.” Gwen has an eye for detail, and an instinctual ability to size up a person, to tell truth from lies. And, to her surprise, to improvise without a moment’s hesitation: “She never knew she was capable of lying so fluently.”
All of this comes to bear when they match up a woman named Tillie La Salle with a gentleman named Dickie Trower, only to be visited by the police the next day with the news that Tillie has been murdered, and Trower has been arrested for it. They refuse to believe in his guilt—“There’s not a speck of evil or violence in him”—but his prospects are so dire, they feel they have no choice but to try to clear him. Where that leads them, however, is into some very deep water, an undercover journey into a large criminal enterprise where that evil and violence does indeed exist—and where they will each have to come face-to-face with the ghosts of their own pasts.
Allison Montclair has a past of her own, which she will not divulge. The name is a pseudonym, and she has written historical mysteries before, as well as “fantasy, science fiction, horror, non-genre fiction, and theatre.” For this book, the first of a series, though, “the milieu and the characters jumped out and demanded to be written.
“My editor had run across a book about an actual London marriage bureau that was in operation from about 1939 on and recommended it to me as a possible milieu for a mystery series. The main characters popped into my head on the trip home from the discussion and started talking. I felt as if I knew them right away.
“With Iris and Gwen, I found that their voices were very much in my head from the beginning, so I let them speak. I don’t know if I’m informing them, or they’re informing me. I think Iris’s voice (and possibly my image of her) come from the young Glynis Johns, with a little of the more madcap Katharine Hepburn mixed in. Gwen, I think of as a Madeleine Carroll type—coolly elegant on the surface, but with her own inner turmoil.
“I am completing the second book in the series as we speak, which takes place a month after the first. I have been looking through interesting contemporaneous events as backdrops (e.g., Princess Elizabeth’s engagement, the London Olympics of 1948). I cannot realistically go through Iris and Gwen’s lives with murders popping up on their doorsteps on a monthly basis, but that’s a pity, in a way. I realized that what I’m really writing about is the lives and friendship of two interesting women in an interesting time in which mysteries happen to occur, so I do want to make their stories complete just to see what happens to them.
“Each of them started with a few basic characteristics, which then were fleshed out with detailed backgrounds as I researched the period. The history of feminism, of what opportunities were becoming available to women before, during, and after WWII, of how societal and class structures were breaking down and reforming, all contributed to their personal histories. I became interested in seeing how British women were traumatized by the wartime experience, something that is addressed much less in the histories of the period.
“Iris and Gwen certainly speak about topics that women in books of the time rarely spoke about. Iris is also much smarter than I am, and likes to show off, but I see that as part of her frustration in being trapped by the expectations British society placed on her.
“There are parts of me in every character I write, good and bad, but they take on lives of their own if I do it right. And they’re better at doing what they do than I am.”
All of this does take considerable research, of course.
“Well, that’s the fun of writing historical books, isn’t it? You find yourself reading a 300-page book on a specific topic from which you might glean a single fun fact. The most bizarre work I read, which is chock full of devices I may use in later books, was a manual for British Intelligence operatives with photographs of all of their methods of concealing weapons, explosives, radios, and the like. There was a booby-trap that involved an explosive inside a dead rat that I found delightful.
“For the immediate post-war period, Mark Roodhouse’s Black Market Britain was essential. Then one does the follow-up on all of his footnotes. Then all the footnotes in those books. I also read the London Times for the dates involved (which, thanks to paper rationing, was not that long then). It’s easy to research; it’s hard to stop and actually write.”
Her acknowledgements page includes the Roodhouse, as well as many other books and research aids, not the least of which: “The author owes a particular debt of gratitude to her handy, dandy, foldable 1946 London Bus and Tram Map, with which she guided Gwen through her misadventures. Iris, of course, did not need a map to find trouble.”
She admits, “I do have a full-time day job,” but how did she decide to start writing books?
“I had grandiose ideas about my abilities early on, as one does, and thought, ‘Before I write the Great Work, let me start with something easy. I know! I’ll write a mystery novel!’
“It turned out, of course, that that wasn’t so easy. My first mystery book I now regard as a practice novel. It took three years to write, and will never see the light of day, nor should it.
“I had also been writing short fiction with some success. One of the stories was a first time with a character who I was trying out before writing a book about him. The story ended up in an anthology at St. Martin’s with the editor I’m working with now. I asked him if he’d like to see the book based on the story. He said yes, and that turned into my first published series.”
Asked to look back to her just-starting-out self, and the piece of advice she’d most like to give her, she said: “I wish I had been more knowledgeable about publicizing myself. I would advise any neophyte to learn how to do that several months before her book comes out so she could hit the ground running. I’ve also been very lucky to have Keith Kahla as an editor, as well as the entire team at St. Martin’s Minotaur (and what a glorious cover they came up with!). I would say my experience this time around has been the best I’ve ever had.”
As for her own future: “I’m finishing up the sequel to THE RIGHT SORT OF MAN, then will take a month break before researching the next one. I have a short story I’ve been wanting to get to for a while, and there are some theatrical projects that may happen. Or not, but I live in a cloud of hopeful delusion, which keeps me writing.”
One thing that is not a delusion—readers will agree with Lyndsay Faye, author of such brilliant novels as Jane Steele and The Paragon Hotel, when she says, “Rarely have I seen a novel that manages to be so charming and so substantial at the same time. The end of this book left me with a single thought: When can I read the next Iris and Gwen adventure?”
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the Executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet:
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