Brighton-Belle

“Brighton looks as though it is a town helping the police with their enquiries.” – Keith Waterhouse

“London was glossy – the pavements shone with a slick of rain now the sun had broken through the clouds.”

So I’ve rambled on before about how London is probably my favourite city, but another city comes perilously close to knocking it from that top spot and that is my local city, Brighton. Honoured to have known Brighton for most of my life (and more and more intimately as time as gone on), it holds a peculiar place in my heart. It is the only place it can hold as it is, indeed, a peculiar place.

Granted city status along with Hove in 2000, the city is a byword for “sleazy weekend” and the mere mention of the name conjures up the scent of fish and chips and salty sea air. It’s also got over three hundred pubs, four hundred restaurants and allegedly more bars and clubs per square mile than anywhere else in the country. With both a huge LGBT community and a reputation for vegetarianism and bohemianism, it is one of the most charming and bizarre places I know.

But this novel is not set in the Brighton I know and love. In Brighton Belle, we step back in time over sixty years to 1951 when it was just a town and not nearly as busy as it is today. Standing on the shore in post-war Britain, the city shows glimmers of its future, but there’s a far more sombre overtone.

Mirabelle Bevan is ex-Secret Service, having worked in the offices during the Second World War but never actively participating in the field. Still, she’s read all the books on spying (and even wrote a couple of them) and knows what to do in a crisis. She now works for a debt collecting agency, trying to forget her past life and her past love, Jack.

However, she finds herself embroiled in another mystery before long when some strange business occurs with one of her clients who is reported dead. With her boss out of the office and the incredibly keen insurance clerk Vesta Churchill next door, she sets off on the trail of the missing Romana Laszlo, a Hungarian refugee who died in childbirth. But, she quickly discovers upon meeting Romana’s sister Lisabetta that things are not at all what they seem. Add to that a captured priest, a goldsmith minting fake coinage and a prostitution ring and the situation becomes more and more complex with every passing hour.

Mirabelle is a delightful character, rather gung-ho and keen to prove herself. She is ahead of her time and determined that what she did during the war should not be forgotten. She knows what she’s doing and if she can use her abilities for good, then she will. Vesta is a lovely creation, a black woman in fifties England with a fondness for cake. The racism and segregation of America during this time tends to overshadow the fact that things weren’t entirely perfect over the pond here.

I’m not one particularly for books and films set during the Second World War (no real reason either, just never taken to many of them) and while this isn’t set during the war, it still features prominently due to all of the characters having not only lived through it, but fought, worked and lost during it. The writing is neat and the characters are warm, but the climax does seem to come together a little too neatly, a chance encounter leading to the surprising conclusion. Still, it’s a nice period romp.

It appears that the book is the first of an intended series and the novel ends with a sequel hook. I will probably keen my eye on Mirabelle Bevan – she seems like one to watch.

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