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Frances Brody - The Kate Shackleton Mysteries



I usually like to say a little about the various authors that I read, but I have been able to discover remarkably little about Frances McNeil, who writes under the pseudonym Frances Brody. I know that Frances was born in Leeds but not when - but she grew up in Leeds, and still lives there. I know nothing of her early schooling, but she worked in New York at the age of 19 before returning to study at Ruskin College, Oxford, and then reading English Literature and History at York University.

Frances McNeil is an English novelist and playwright, and has written extensively for BBC radio. As Frances Brody she writes a series of 1920s crime novels featuring her heroine Kate Shackleton. They are Yorkshire based. Kate is aided and assisted by Jim Sykes, an ex CID policeman, and Mrs Sugden, her housekeeper.

I got the first book in the series by chance in The Works bookshop in Bury St Edmunds. I had intended to read another book but I left home without it, and saw that Dying in the Wool was on offer for only 1, and so just bought it, knowing nothing about the author, nor the Kate Shackleton character.





Dying in the Wool     (2009)


I read this book in July, 2019.

It is always interesting to begin reading a new series, especially one chosen by chance. I was struck by a very familiar opening sequence "My name's Kate Shackleton. I am thirty one years old, and hanging on the freedom by the skin of my teeth. Because I'm a widow ........." That was exactly how Sue Grafton opened the Kinsey Millhone "Alphabet" books. Kinsey aged very slowly as the series progressed. I wonder what Kate Shackleton will do ?

This is book one, it's about 1922, and we are introduced to Kate Shackleton. Kate is a widow as are so many in the post war years. Kate's husband was an army surgeon. Captain Gerald Shackleton was posted officially missing and was last seen in 1918 in France just before a series of heavy barages. Although she had been told "missing in action" was a gentle way of saying "blown to smithereens," Kate still half hopes / hoped he would turn up one day - perhaps suffering from amnesia. However she was persuaded to have him declared dead, and Kate inherited sufficient to live reasonably. Kate's father is a superintendent in Yorkshire police, Superintendent Hood, and her mother is Mrs Hood in Yorkshire, but, on trips to London, reverts to her maiden name of Lady Virginia (she is the daughter of the late Lord and Lady Rodpen). Kate was adopted, and then seven years later her mum and dad had twin boys. They loved Kate all the more - she had brought them luck ! As something to do, Kate has been helping war "widows" or mothers find missing loved ones, and has been remarkably successful. Because of this she is approached by an old war time chum - Tabatha Braithwaite. Tabatha is about to get married, but her father Joshua Braithwaite went missing some 6 years ago. Is he still alive or dead ? If alive, could he attend his daughter's wedding. Tabatha asks Kate to help, and says she will pay. This is Kate's first commission for money, and she can now describe herself as a private investigator. Kate's dad suggests Jim Sykes as a possible assistant - Jim is out of work and the 2 a week will be a godsend for his family. Jim was a good detective, but upset his superiors when he refused to overlook a police injustice. Kate lives in Bridgestead in the Yorkshire countryside, and is looked after by her housekeeper Mrs Sugden.

Kate and Mr Sykes get to work, and the story of the mising Joshua Braithwaite unfolds. Joshua was not faithful to his wife Evelyn, nor she to him. He was a millionaire mill owner and we get a good evocation of mill work in the 1920s - dirty, dangerous, noisy, smelly, etc. We meet the mill workers, and as Kate digs deeper and deeper we get two more suspicious deaths - the Kellets. Did Joshua run off with a mistress, or did some enemy kill him ? I thought it was all well written, and I kept turning the page to see if Joshua might be alive, and to see how the Kate and Mr Sykes partnership would develop, remembering of course that Jim Sykes is married. Kate is bound by the conventions of the time, but is an independent soul - what we would now call a feminist. Jim Sykes is very uncomfortable to be seen as a passenger in Kate's car. As the man, he should be driving, but (a) it's Kate's car, and (b) Jim can't drive ! I liked the bit when Kate was at her Aunt Berta' party in London, and met Sir Arthur and Lady Jean Conon-Doyle. New to the private investigator business, Kate asked for advice - was she trying to consult the great Sherlock Holmes ?

It all build to a series of climaxes, and even when it all seems settled there is a final surprise - but I have no intention of spoiling things. All in all, a very interesting, well written story. Not a classic, but good, interesting historically too and very readable.






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Murder in the Afternoon     (2011)


I read this book in October, 2019.

I started with book one in the Kate Shackleton series, liked it, but since I don't have book two yet, I have had to jump to book three. Unfortunately I seem to have missed quite a bit in Kate's personal life story. Apparently, in book two, she met, fell for, and was let down by a practising psychiatrist, but happily, she also met a more genuine man in DI Marcus Charles of Scotland Yard. Things must have moved fast, because she has spent the night with him - remember this is the 1920s. In this book, Marcus is still around, but he is now a DCI, and he seems about to propose marriage to Kate. I don't think she will say yes - at least not yet. Marcus is a bit old fashioned in his views about a woman's place in society There is only one female detective in the whole of Scotland Yard. Kate is thoroughly modern in her ways. She won't allow herself to play second fiddle. As an aside, in the Railway Detective books from a little further back still, Robert Colbeck has to use his wife Maddy as a female detective - there being no female detectives at all in Scotland Yard.

Ex policeman Jim Sykes is still Kate's detective assistant, and her housekeeper Mrs Sugden also wants to help.

The story opens with a bang - or several bangs. In the middle of the night, a woman is hammering on Kate's door, and introduces herself as Mary Jane Armstrong. Her husband Ethan has gone missing. Worse, her daughter Harriet took her dad - a stonemason working alone on a Saturday afternoon in a local quarry - his teatime meal, and found his body lying cold on the floor of a shed. Harriet was a country girl, and recognised death. She held her brother Austin back outside the shed, so he did not see his dead father, but they both ran to the nearest farm for help. Bob Conroy, their "uncle" rushed to the quarry, but the body had vanished. Ethan was never seen again. Mary Jane believed her daughter - the police did not - and ran to consult Kate Shackleton. But there was something familiar about Mary Jane - where had Kate met her before ? Kate rushes to help, but then stops and refuses to go on until Mary Jane says how they have met before. "Kate" says Mary Jane, "I am your birth sister. I was there when your new dad called at our mum's house and took you away. She had to give you up, and you were adopted." Kate knew she was adopted , but nothing else of her origins. Now she learns she has a sister, and a niece and nephew, and her birth mother is still alive.

The actual murder of Ethan Armstrong is a good, solid story . The police think Mary Jane did it. Mary Jane could indeed be the killer - what does Kate think ? The police - her dad Superintendent Hood, and her lover DCI Marcus of Scotland Yard - both tell her to leave well alone, as Ethan was a communist revolutionery known to the authorities. To Mary Jane he was just a husband and dad for Harriet and Austin.

Eventually Kate believes Mary Jane, and gets to know Harriet and Austin. She also meets Mrs Whitaker, her birth mother.

There was quite a bit more to the story - it held my interest and I kept page turning. At the climax, it is obvious that the police have just been humouring Kate, but it is she who solves it all.

It's an interesting series and it's lovely to read another take on 1920s England. Historical fiction is getting to be quite a crowded field.

A Woman Unknown     (2012)


I read this book in April, 2020.

This is a little gem of a book, which ticks lots of boxes for me. It's historical fiction done well set in the 1920's in Leeds, London, etc, it's a good murder mystery with the murderer only revealed towards the end of the book, and it has a strong personal lives back story. So it's another outing for Kate Shackleton, Mr Sykes her ex police assistant, Mrs Sugden her housekeeper and much more, and Sookie the cat. We also meet DCI Marcus Charles of Scotland Yard once again. He had asked Kate to marry him, but quite correctly she said no. Marcus uses Kate to help in his investigation once again, but it's clear he doesn't fully trust Kate, and certainly under values and under estimates her abilities. Kate is a "modern woman", and no man's inferior. A marriage would have been a disaster, but Kate and Marcus can still be friends. Kate still hasn't fully accepted that Gerald, her doctor husband missing presumed dead in the last war, really is dead, and won't return. But she gets news of Gerald's definite death from a most unlikely source at the very end of the book - now she can move on.

It's a good and very interesting crime story with lots of strong characters. It starts with two separate investigations, but as is often the case, they are connected, and become one story. Diedre Fitspatrick is known to Mr Sykes. Working part time in department store security, he caught Diedre shoplifting, but persuaded the store management that hers was an honest mistake. And so Sykes persuades Kate to take on a case when Mr Cyril Fitspatrick wants someone to solve a mystery for him. His wife Diedre is going off by herself a lot, allegedly to visit her sick mother, but is she really? Cyril wants Diedre followed. Normally Kate never touches matrimonials, but agrees this once. Diedre is visiting her mother but not all the time. Diedre is trying to get some money to pay for better care for her mum, but doing so in a most unusual way. It's now possible for married people to get a divorce if there is evidence of unfaithfulness. Diedre sleeps with some husband seeking a divorce (no sex, with a pillow down the middle of the bed) in some hotel - the hotel Metropole here - the chambermaid discovers them in the morning, and so grounds for divorce are established. It's sleazy, but it pays well.

The other story is about Everett Runcie, an impoverished member of British aristrocy. He has married a rich American Philippa but blatently and publicly continues to see his mistress Catherine Windham. Philippa has paid out to maintain the Runcie country seat, but is being treated shabily, and has had enough. She wants a divorce, is returning to America, and Everett is to provide her with grounds. Yes, the person he meets is none other that Diedre Fitspatrick - but Diedre wakes in the morning to find a dead Everett lying beside her. She flees the scene. Everett had been murdered, and Marcus Charles of Scotland Yard is given the case. He asks Kate to interview the distraught chamber maid. Marcus is in town following an American gangster Anthony Hartigan who is bulk buying Scotch to later sell on the blackmarket in prohibition locked America. A harassed Marcus gets ex policeman Mr Sykes sworn in a special constable to follow Hartigan.

The story now takes off. A lot of the characters are known to Mrs Shackleton - eg Philippa is a friend. Kate Shackleton's mum is of course part of the same aristrocy. Hartigan turns out to be Diedre's brother, Philippa has a trusted and devoted manservant Gideon King, Rupert Cromer is a gifted sculptor, and Diamond is a society and news photographer whose trick camera allows him to take candid photos. Kate's reputation means her services are are highly sought after. Philippa asks Kate to find out who killed Everett - and so Kate and Marcus are working on the same case, but mostly separately. At the very end it's Kate who identifies the murderer and earns a generous cheque - sufficient to buy a new Jowett motor car, and give the old Jowett to Mr Sykes who also gets a pay rise.

I really like it that the story continues after the murderer is caught. Mary Anne is Kate's blood sister and she is to be a house guest of Kate's. Mary Anne is getting married again, only 5 months after her first husband's death. Kate is devoted to little Harriet, Mary Anne's daughter. Mary Anne has moved on, and it's time for Kate to move on too. It's a bit like the ending of a Maisie Dobbs story in that Kate revisits all the main characters, helping where she can. Thus she suggests that Caroline Windham starts afresh in Paris, and even suggests a business partner for her.

All in all, a lovely little story full of period detail.






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Death of an Avid Reader     (2014)


I read this book in January, 2020.

These are the on going adventures of Kate Shackleton, a highly connected lady private detective, set in 1925 Leeds, in this case. Kate has a team of one - Jim Sykes - and a faithful housekeeper Mrs Sugden. The previous book that I read "Chronicles of the Dead" was a bit too clever by half, and I wanted a simple crime story. More of less, this is what this book is.

The book started ever so well - I thought it might turn out to be special - but sadly it sort of faltered half way through. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story.

The book opens with Lady Coulton summonsing Kate to get her to trace a secret love child she had when she was young - a girl given up for adoption. It later turns out that Lady Coulton is dying - hence her desire to find her long lost daughter. The missing girl is very, very difficult to find, and Kate thinks this may be her first failure. But Lady Coulton tells Kate she has only days left to live, and Kate decides she must do all she can to find the girl.

There is another story running through the book. Kate is a patron of Leeds public library, and her friend there tells her a strange story about the place being haunted. A catholic priest has agreed to exorcise the ghost, and reluctantly Kate is persuaded to be one of two lay persons assisting the priest. Of course there is no ghost, but other explanations for the strange noises from the basement. The priest, Kate, and Mr Lennox find the murdered body of Dr Potter in the basement. The local police are called, and Inspector Wallis is in charge. Kate doesn't think much of Wallis - and when a vagrant is found in the same basement , Wallis immediately charges the vagrant with murder. The vagrant is dseperately ill, and very weak. It's obvious to Kate that Wallis has acted too quickly, and she decides she will have to solve the murder and a save the vagrant - remember hanging had not yet been abolished.

There is also a well behaved monkey called Percy in this book - (the vagrant was an Italian organ grinder) - that Mrs Sugden has to care for.

Of course it all works out in the end. Perhaps Kate has even misjudged Inspector Wallis.

It's a competent story that doesn't live up to it's initial promise, but still it's an OK read. I prefer the Maisie Dobbs series also set in the 1920s, and later.






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A Death in the Dales     (2015)


I read this book in February, 2020.

One of the delights of reading a series is that we meet again not just the main characters - 1920s lady PI Kate Shackleton, her ex policeman assistant Jim Sykes, and housekeeper Mrs Sugden - but also people we have met earlier in the series. The book opens with Kate's young niece Harriet - Kate had not known she had a sister, nor a niece - in a quarantine hospital with diphtheria, and her mum and aunt are standing in a muddy flower bed peering through through a closed window.

Next Kate takes Harriet away with her for a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales to recuperate. I have jumped several books in reading this series, and didn't know that Kate and Dr Lucian Simonson were "romantically involved." How did it happen, and when ? Lucian's aunt Freda had brought him up in Langcliffe, but has now died, and left him her house. So Kate and Harriet are giving the house a trial run. There is currently no doctor in Langcliffe. Kate is to live there on holiday to see how she likes the place, and advise Lucian if he could open a surgery there. Would she and Lucian settle there ? Lucian is a nice person - and so one of the questions of the book is will he and Kate get married, settle down, and Kate no longer be a PI.

Freda had witnessed the murder of Mr Holroyd, a local publican. After he threw a drunk Irishman out of his pub, a dark stranger appeared out of the shadows and stabbed Holroyd. The Irishman rushed to help, pulled the knife out of the body, and so was found holding the blood stained murder weapon. It didn't help that there was anti Irish feeling in 1926 (Easter Riots, etc). The poor Irishman was tried and hanged. Freda was a witness for the defence, but was not beleived. She always remembered the innocent Irishman, and vowed somehow to clear his name. Then she learned that Lucian was seeing the now famous Kate Shackleton. Freda thought she could get Kate to help her, but Freda died before they could meet. However her case papers were presented to Kate by Freda's friend "Wiggy", and so Freda speaks to Kate from the grave.

Although supposedly on holiday, Kate has to help, but Lucian doesn't approve. Kate sends for Jim Sykes. There is another murder there, to solve first, but Kate eventually solves both.

Harriet has made two chums in the village, Beth Young, a 15 year old mill worker, and Susannah Trevelyan, daughter of the local squire, but rather a lonely girl. Beth's mother had died recently. Beth and her younger brother Martin had been sent to Langcliffe, where Martin had been sent out to labour as a farmers boy on a local farm, but unfortunately for a farmer who was a beast. Now Martin is missing. Can Harriet help Beth find Martin ? Harriet wants to be a PI like her aunt. Susannah says she will join the hunt.

There are all sorts of extra threads to the story. Mrs Trevelyan is being blackmailed, and seeks Kate's help. A local farm worker Gabriel keeps appearing on the scene and proves to be a great help. Later, one question posed is just who is Susannah Trevelyan's actual father.

There is a national strike, and petrol is in short supply. It's historical fiction at it's best . I still prefer the Maisie Dobbs series, but this is of similar quality and interest. It's well written, and the stories flow beautifully to make this an easy book to read. And what's wrong with that ?

I'll need to go back in the series to see how Lucian and Kate met, and who was the Indian princess who gave Kate a Rolls Royce car, (not much good when there is a petrol shortage).

The book concludes with two weddings, and no loose ends. Read the book to see if Kate married Lucian.






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