Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen

November 5, 2019

B

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders

by Tessa Arlen
November 5, 2019 · Berkley
Historical: EuropeanMilitaryMystery/Thriller

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders is a mystery set in a small English town named Little Buffendon in 1942, just after the US joined WWII. Poppy, who lives with her grandparents, is the local Air Raid Warden. Her job is to walk through the village late at night and remind folks to put their blackout shades in place lest there be an actual aerial attack. The community has been dealing with war rationing, food and supply shortages, and the growing death toll locally and nationally. Now that the Americans have moved into the community to join the war effort, there’s both hope that maybe the war will come to an end soon, and distrust of change, of new people, and of the inevitable cultural tension between two very different groups. Then one of the local young women is found strangled, and suspicion is immediately placed on the American soldiers. Poppy, however, is not so sure.

First, take a look at that cover, huh? That hits it out of the park in the art department. I offer massive compliments to the designer and the artists involved. My ARC doesn’t have that info, but I can update once the final version is out. Really nice job.

There are things this mystery does so very well, and some things I found jarring and distracting.. It was hard to stop reading it, and it was difficult to avoid highlighting passages or scenes that pulled my critical brain to the front of the line ahead of my just-enjoying-the-story-here-give-it-a-rest-already reading brain.

All the elements of the setting are flipping exquisite: the time, the place, the community, and the characters combine to make this a very absorbing and atmospheric novel. There’s tension in the every aspect, and the stakes for the characters, especially Poppy, are both intimate and personal while also massive and global. At the start of the novel, Poppy and her grandparents have moved to a small lodge on their property after the British War Office requisitions their home and farmland as an airfield for the US Air Force. Poppy is the only Air Raid Warden, and a lone female in the job (she does have her dog, Bess, who is terrific as only faithful dogs in English small village mysteries can be) which puts her in a strange position: a solid amount of authority, but tempered with considerable amounts of required deference. Poppy wasn’t educated with the local children, but sent away to school, which adds another layer of distance between her and her community, one she loves but doesn’t always feel included within. There are references to status and class, to who has lived in the village the longest, and so all the ways in which who is “in” and who is “out” are measured in a tiny community affect Poppy at various turns.

After Doreen Newcombe, the baker’s daughter and not a very kind person, is found strangled, Poppy has doubts about the suspected perpetrator. When another girl, Ivy, who was more popular and a lot kinder than Doreen, is found a short time later also strangled, and an American airman is arrested, Poppy finds herself in the strange position of realizing that the wrong person has been charged, and that the likely suspect is a member of her village, not the American military.

Poppy is the only narrator, and there’s a lot going on in her head. Sometimes it’s marvelously entertaining: Poppy is a born diplomat, able to soothe tempers when the local jumble sale of hand-me-down clothing has absolutely no size eight clothing for boys, which is of course the only size needed, and equally able to figure out which of the small town gossips is the best source for information. She’s confident, clever, smart, and dedicated to her work as an Air Raid Warden, and to her country’s effort to withstand air raids. She’d trained in London, and seen the devastation of bombings close up, something Little Buffendon has not, and she struggles to maintain cordial relationships with people who don’t necessarily understand the urgency of obeying her and the directives she enforces.

Poppy’s role in the larger setting and community add to the vividness of the book: I felt as if I were in Poppy’s head, and in Little Buffendon, and could picture and hear so many of the different characters through Poppy’s narration. The rationing and limitations, the luxury of real beef or chicken, the impossibility of nylon stockings or real milk and cream, all affect the community, and the ease with which the Americans have and provide these things to a community starved of those comforts creates still more tension: no one is sure whether to trust them, or to accept their gifts or to welcome them into the community. That social tension is amplified by Poppy’s responsibility to walk through the village every night in the dark, observing and watching and reminding people to block out their lights. Should she too indulge and spend time with an American solider, or keep her distance and remain aloof? Is she part of the community or does she enforce order in that community from a different position? There’s no easy answer for her, or for the other characters, especially after the two young women are killed, and Poppy begins asking difficult questions.

One common problem I have with ‘cozy’ mysteries was subverted and dealt with uniquely in this book. In many mysteries I’ve tried to read, the death that set off the mystery doesn’t leave much of an imprint on the community, despite that community being very small. It’s almost as if the dead characters dissolve like in a video game. Realistic grief doesn’t always have much of an impact on the surrounding people, and I struggle with that absence of grief when I try reading different mystery series. With Poppy Redfern, the community is already grieving: young men in the community have been killed in the war, and everyone’s lives in Little Buffendon have been made more and more difficult by the day. They grieve the way life was before the war, before the Americans arrived, before everything changed. On one hand, at times I thought that the deaths of two young people who were strangled in their community, not killed fighting in a war, would maybe create more of an effect on everyone, that they’d react with more fear or caution. But there was already so much caution and hyperawareness, it also fit that the town was satisfied with the idea that it wasn’t one of them, but one of the visiting air force soldiers, who shouldn’t have been trusted in the first place. And there were moments and small scenes with parents who were trying to cope with their loss while trying to keep going forward amid so much larger, constant, and unending loss and fear.

That said, the ending wasn’t entirely satisfying to me, and it’s a spoiler which I’ll try to keep vague, but want to alert y’all to as well:

Show Spoiler
When the killer is finally revealed, it wasn’t a surprise to me, but what was a surprise was that other individuals may have been aware – and the larger community doesn’t seem to deal with or struggle with that revelation at all in the final chapters. There’s a lot of Big Betrayal at the end that wasn’t sufficiently addressed for me, not even in Poppy’s head, and it seemed at odds with the dedication to community support that permeates every other interaction among the characters.

I’ve mentioned being in Poppy’s head a few times: she’s an interesting narrator, but also at times can be frustrating. I identified with her struggle to belong and remain apart, and her dedication to her work and her own aspirations and dreams, but the specifics of Poppy’s goals were often disruptive to the story. Poppy wants to be a writer, and has created a character, Ilona, who speaks to Poppy in her mind, a sort of alter-ego who is more confident and assertive. Every time Ilona popped into a conversation, I found it a distracting motif and wasn’t sure what purpose she served in the narrative. The story within the story that Poppy writes didn’t grab me either. It was too much on top of everything else going on.

Poppy also makes several assertions that the killer “couldn’t be” a person, but does so without any evidence aside from her own experience and opinion. She struggles with the reason for her personal investigation of the murders: it likely can’t be one of the Americans, but that means it IS one of her neighbors, something she doesn’t want to believe. She throws misdirection and false clues in her own way, and frequently demands sympathy for really terrible people who do terrible things as a matter of course. Her narration is unreliable due to her subjective engagement with her community, which makes the story more interesting while making her account of what happens sometimes frustrating.

Poppy does have a romance in the story, which I liked very much, though it was somewhat tepid in its progress. The charm of her hesitant courtship adds a welcome piece of hope and excitement for Poppy, and thus the reader: normal life goes on amid a war and amid a strange series of murders, even when trust is repeatedly disrupted.

I recommend this book for readers who like historical mysteries, and who especially like investigating narrators who think independently and with cleverness, but also acknowledge real fears and vulnerabilities. The setting, the time period, and the community are wonderfully immersive, and while some of the narrative choices were distracting for me, I’m curious about the next book – which is a good sign. This should be the start of an alluring and popular mystery series.

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