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Sunday 11 February 2024

‘The Pantomime Murders’ by Fiona Veitch Smith

Published by Embla Books,
28th November 2023.
ISBN 978-1-47141573-9 (PB)

This is the second book in the series featuring Clara Vale, who although from a wealthy family is determined to make her own way in the world, without financial help from her family. Or from her mother who only wants to find her a suitable husband. Equipped with her Oxford degree in chemistry Clara seeks to find a job in the world of science, but it is 1929 and she quickly discovers that it’s a male dominated one. 

The sudden death of her uncle Bob and the news that he has left her his house and money opens up a future for Clara.  He has also she discovers left her his detective agency and most wonderful of all his house has a laboratory. And so, Clara sets off from London to a new life in the north of England.

We take up her story as she reads through her uncle’s files and the still open cases. Several she contacts to advise them that Wallace Enquiry Agency is now Vale investigation. Several have already moved to other investigators. One informing her that he ‘would never in a million years employ a lady detective’.  This leaves one remaining case, shoplifting in Fenwick’s Department store.  When she meets with Mr Carlton the manager, he is happy to employ her, but informs her that he has undercover workers trained by Jack Danskin.  Clara has had dealing before with the slippery Jack Danskin and she doesn’t trust him. Although he does have an attractive smile.

Her second case materialises via her friend Juji, who introduces to her Peggy Rose who is in the chorus of Cinderella, the touring Christmas pantomime. The fairy Godmother is being played by the famous actress Sybil Langford, who has mysteriously disappeared. With the snow falling and the streets icy she left the theatre still in her fairy Godmother costume with just her bag and wand. Please can you find her asked Peggy?

As Clara starts her investigation she comes up against prejudice, spite, secrets and lots of chauvinism. But then she is used to that, and she ignores it and ploughs on. Sadly, the missing person case ends abruptly when Sybil’s body is pulled from the river. But now has a murder to solve? Or maybe two, as the second fairy Godmother who took over the part also comes to a tragic end. 

I loved how Clara was always ready, and as soon as she saw anything that might be pertinent to her investigation, out of her bag came her fingerprinting equipment. Of course, the police are not overly impressed with her interference. Particularly DCI Bradshaw. But DCI Sandy Hawkes maybe mellowing towards her. She does have one thing in her favour and that is her friendship with her uncle Bob’s close friend pathologist Dr Charlie Malone.

Christmas Eve, 3,45pm  and Clara is looking forward to a rest on 25th of December, when rounding the bend to home she sees a pile of luggage, two women and four children; The family have arrived unexpectedly, and uninvited.  Lady Vanessa Vale wanting to know why the butler hasn’t answered the door.  It goes down hill from there. What time does your cook arrive? It took time to explain. I have NO servants, mother. Oh! dear. 

The Wall Street crash of 1929, impacted on many people. Particularly those of the upper classes who invested in all sorts if schemes.  Clara learns that her father had not only invested unwisely but had borrowed money to do so. They have lost all three of their houses.

I loved this clever and ingeniously plotted book. The characterisation is marvellous.  I was completely caught up in the mystery and I couldn’t put it down.  I am so looking forward to the next instalment in Clara’s life. Most highly recommended.
Reviewer: Lizzie Sirett  

Fiona Veitch Smith writes Golden Age mysteries and historical fiction and has been shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger. Her breakthrough series was Poppy Denby Investigates about a young reporter sleuth in 1920s London. Her new series, the Miss Clara Vale Mysteries with Embla Books, is set in and around Newcastle in the late 20s and early 30s, featuring a female forensic scientist who inherits a detective agency. The third book in the series, The Pyramid Murders, is due out in June 2024. Fiona has worked as a journalist, a university lecturer and a communications manager, and mentors new novelists. She grew up in Northumberland, then spent her teens and twenties in South Africa. She now lives in Newcastle.

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