On 12 January 1920, army nurse Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of Florence Nightingale, was brutally beaten on a Brighton train line. She was found unconscious and covered in blood by three railway workers, and passed away in hospital two days later. Her murderer was never found. This violent, real life unsolved murder forms the basis of The Mitford Murders – the fictional debut for author, Jessica Fellowes, which also features the notorious Mitford sisters in what is to be a series of six cosy mystery stories.
Louisa Cannon lives in poverty with her washerwoman mother. She is forced into pickpocketing by her nefarious uncle, Stephen, who has moved in with them following the death of Louisa’s father. After being kidnapped by Stephen who intends to prostitute her, Louisa escapes by jumping off a moving train – at the same time the injured Nurse Shore is discovered. With assistance from industrious railway policeman, Guy Sullivan, Louisa eventually finds her way to Asthall Manor where she has been recommended for a job as nurserymaid to the Mitford sisters. She is soon befriended by intelligent and lively Nancy Mitford, who has a morbid fascination with Nurse Shore’s murder. Together with Guy, who is keen to prove his worth after being unable to go to war like his brothers, Louise and Nancy follow lines of enquiry into her death.
Jessica Fellowes is the author of the Downton Abbey companion books (she is the niece of Julian Fellowes, creator of the series) and has an international career as a public speaker. Her knowledge of the time period is evident in her detailed descriptions of the fashion, settings and depiction of society and she seamlessly blends fact and fiction to create a compelling narrative. The Mitford Murders is a classic mystery that will please traditionalists but has enough originality to appeal to readers of all kinds of crime fiction. There are plenty of head-scratchers – a locked room mystery, a man in a brown suit who vanished from the scene of the crime and something not quite right about Nancy’s new crush. The final scenes where Louisa and Guy devise an elaborate plot to expose Nurse Shore’s murderer at Nancy’s 18th birthday party dramatically unravel a tangle of lies, love affairs and mistaken identities. I was convinced the plot was heading in a certain direction before it did a complete reversal, culminating in a satisfying twist.
While the title suggests the involvement of more than one Mitford family member, this story really only features Nancy Mitford as a main character and even then, she is really more of a sidekick to Louise, who has as much gumption as she can for a woman of lower class in the 1920s. In a recent interview with Hachette, Jessica said she will focus on a different sister for each book in the series so she can explore the changing landscape between 1920 and 1939. In other exciting news, The Mitford Murders has been optioned for television by Left Bank Pictures, producers of “The Crown”, so hopefully we will see the glamour and intrigue of this golden era on our screens very soon.
The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes is published in Australia by Hachette.
She had convinced herself that she was building a new life here but it had turned out to be as collapsible as a soufflé.