Iain's Leisure Reading

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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