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Wednesday 10 August 2022

‘The Corpses at Waterloo’ by Lynn Brittney

Published by Iris Books,
16 July 2022.
ISBN: 978-1-907147-83-8 (PB)

The increasing death toll of the First World War means there is a lack of manpower in Britain and many jobs have been taken over by women to fill the gaps. The police authorities have been forced to work alongside voluntary organisations run by woman, but they are unwilling to employ them in any official capacity. With the blessing of the Scotland Yard Commissioner, Sir Edward Henry, Chief Inspector Peter Beech has set up a secret investigation team that, in a small way, rectifies this waste of female skills. As well as Beech, this team is made up of two serving policemen: a seasoned police officer who has been brought back from retirement, Detective Sergeant Arthur Tollman, and Constable Billy Rigsby, who has been invalided out of the army with a crippled hand and a scarred face. Far more controversial, Beech has enlisted the services of three talented young women: Doctor Caroline Allardyce, Mabel Summersby a pharmacist, and Victoria Ellingham, who has had legal training; also part of the team are Billy’s mother and aunt, Elsie and Sissy, two kind, tough, practical women who can turn their hands to anything. The group works on special, sensitive cases; they are based at the Mayfair home of Victoria’s mother, Lady Maud Winterbourne, who sometimes helps with investigations. The phone number of the team’s headquarters is Mayfair 100, which is the reason for the name of the overall series.

At the start of this book, Constable Billy Rigsby knows it will be an ordeal to accompany his mother and aunt to the funeral of the son of a former neighbour who died in the trenches, but Billy never shirks his duty and goes with them to The London Necropolis Railway Station at Waterloo. There are several diverse groups of families waiting to receive their soldier loved ones and Billy is asked to help with the organisation of matching the large number of coffins with the correct families, At first, all goes smoothly, but then he discovers the body of a young woman sprawled over a soldier’s coffin. Greatly shocked, Billy telephones Mayfair 100 and summons the team to his aid.

When Tollman and Beech arrive they open the coffin upon which the dead woman was lying and discover a tattooed and headless corpse that is definitely not the Captain who should have been in the coffin. The team opens the other coffins and discovers that two more of them contain sandbags rather than the soldiers’ bodies. This leads to the uncovering of two cases of deception with very different motives. One coffin should have held the body of a fourteen-year-old boy. This case, which awakens anger and pity even in the tough, experienced police officers, reveals the British Army’s policy of turning a blind eye to the enlistment of underage boys, even though they are totally unfitted for the horrors of the trenches. These children are convinced to join the army by propaganda and social pressure from people who believe it is appropriate for working class boys to be used as cannon fodder. All of the team feel sympathy for the relatives who faked a shell-shocked boy’s death to rescue him from this hideous situation and Beech and the Commissioner are determined to bring this abuse to official attention. The absent corpse in the other sandbag filled coffin evokes very different emotions in the police officers. This absent body is the son of a criminal family who had been given the choice of joining the army or going to prison. His powerful, violent family will harm anyone who displeases them, even their own relations, and they are determined to prevent him from going to either prison or the trenches by arranging to fake his death. The team’s investigation reveals that this is not an isolated incident but an issue of serious corruption, which involves the criminal underworld, undertakers and dishonest police officers who forge paperwork for profit.

The team’s investigation into the murdered woman and the body in the coffin opens with the necessity of identifying both of the corpses and also discovering the whereabouts of the Captain who should have been in the coffin. Soon the team uncover motives for the two murders, which are remarkable for their selfish callousness. Also, Elsie and Sissy discover another side effect of the vast male death toll: the failure to provide for the widows and children of dead servicemen, who are forced to deal with severe poverty as well as grief. As with the enlistment of underage boys, this impacts the poor and working class far more than the privileged. Elsie and Sissy are determined to bring this failure to the attention of those with the power to create change, which leads them to join forces with several influential women, and forge an alliance with the one-time suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, who works tirelessly with poor and desperate families.

The Mayfair 100 team have to use their entire range of skills to disentangle the multiple threads of the several cases that started with the discovery of the corpses at Waterloo Station. Soon it becomes clear that the main problem is not simply to discover the perpetrators but to bring the guilty to justice, especially when those evildoers have wealth and power, but the team are determined that justice will be done.

The Corpses at Waterloo is the fourth book in the series featuring the team at Mayfair 100. It stands alone, with an introduction and skilfully inserted information that provides the backstory. It is a delightful series in which the characters and their relationships continue to develop. The characters are warm, engaging and clearly defined, united in their determination to right wrongs and serve justice; and the plot is complex but coherent. The historical details are fascinating, bringing together fictional and real-life characters and emphasising the terrible effects of the First World War, especially on the poor and powerless. The Corpses at Waterloo is a page turner, which I thoroughly recommend.

Reviewer: Carol Westron

Lynn Brittney has fifty-two plays, books (fiction and non-fiction), and foreign translations of her books registered for PLR. She began novel-writing in 2005 and the first book in her Nathan Fox Elizabethan spy trilogy was nominated for the Waterstones and Brandford Boase Prize. In 2016 she created the Mayfair 100 series, set in WW1. The first two books – Murder in Belgravia and A Death in Chelsea have been published in the UK by Mirror Books.

Carol Westron
is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 6 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book click on the title
The Curse of the Concrete Griffin 

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