"A nice bottle of Islay malt was all Mirabelle Bevan really wanted--though Glenlivet was fine at a push." I like a woman who knows her own mind. Now, don't get the wrong idea in reference to the whiskey. Mirabelle is a woman to admire, but it's 1951 and she had a difficult war. Rather, a difficult ending to a war that offered her opportunities. How sad that the man she loved made it through the war only to die of a heart attack after. And now Mirabelle is left to pick up the pieces of her life and copes as well as she can. A life she spends in the employ of a debt collection agency located in Brighton. She likes to take her lunch on the beach when she can (a woman truly after my own heart), and she knows how to time the comings and goings of the deck chair attendant so she can avoid paying for use of a proper place to sit.
"By selecting the right chair she could have an average of twenty-five undisturbed minutes, which was perfect. Mirabelle's life these days revolved around small victories, little markers in her day that got her through until it was time for bed."
I understand those little markers. For Mirabelle a little nip of the Islay to wash down her sandwich makes facing the emptiness that is her life just a little bit easier.
Brighton Belle is the first Mirabelle Bevan mystery and she's proved to be an intelligent and inviting character to get to know. She works in the office of McGuigan & McGuigan, though there's only "Big Ben" (who thought the dual name sounded more professional) and herself. Their clients are mostly people trying to pay off debts with the occasional person in the pursuit of loaned money long outstanding. Ben is as no-nonsense as Mirabelle and the two get on well, so he's more than happy to leave the office in her capable hands when he comes down with a case of the flu.
When a client comes in trying to collect a loan from a woman "in the family way" who's done a "blighter" down to Brighton, he's ready to retain the services of McGuigan and company. It should be straight forward until Mirabelle discovers that the woman is a Hungarian refugee and has just died in childbirth. It's not an unusual occurrence, but things don't quite add up, especially after meeting her sister and her social-climbing cohort. There is something more going on, though Mirabelle can't quite yet put her finger on it.
Mirabelle brings to her work a little added knowledge and experience. She served the war effort working for the Secret Service in London, and while she didn't do any field work she's learned enough to fake it. She can easily size up a situation and read the problem and know the questions she needs to ask and how to find the answers. It was through her war work that she met Jack, an unhappily married man who was on the verge of leaving his wife when he died. Mirabelle is a stylish woman and obviously from a wealthy background as Vesta, her neighboring office worker, notes.
Vesta is friendly to the point of nosiness and gets drawn into the mystery willingly. She makes an interesting juxtaposition character-wise, as a black woman in a mostly white town who speaks her mind (she's used to the discrimination even while it makes the reader shudder). To Mirabelle's svelte sophistication, Vesta likes a bit of sweet along with her tea (another woman after my own heart). She's a little apprehensive about doing the things Mirabelle wants to do (breaking and entering?), but once she gets a taste of the life, there is no turning back. The two women make a perfect partnership and without giving too much detail away I think they will be working together more in the future.
For a first novel I was suitably impressed since Sheridan not only presents interesting and nicely developed characters with lots of room to grow, but she sets the scene of post-WWII Austerity Britain nicely with just the right amount of period detail to make it convincing without feeling artificial. And to top it off the mystery was surprising in a twisty turny way just when I thought I had figured it out. I look forward to more of Mirabelle and Vesta's adventures and now my only problem is trying to decide whether to wait for the next installment to be published here in the US or just order the next book (there are five available with a sixth forthcoming next year) from the UK. I'm pleased to see more female characters in roles like these--a combination sleuth/espionage story so very often only inhabited by men.