‘What would one call a group of Mitfords?’ asked Nancy, her tiny waist beautifully shown off in its tailored jacket of black and white dogtooth check. She sat by a round table, a glass of sherry at her hand. ‘A haven? A giggle?’
‘A swarm,’ said Tom, taking a long draught of ale.
Once upon a time – what feels like a long time ago – I found this series charming. The first novel, The Mitford Murders rebounded with period charm: Louisa Cannon was a genuinely warm and interesting character, negotiating the limitations of her working class background with wit and intelligence, a perfect foil to the privilege and plenty of the Mitfords.
Now, four books in, that charm seems to have waned. Perhaps that is the influence of the ever closer war and of the Mitfords’ increasing fascination with it. The previous book, The Mitford Scandal focussed on Diana Mitford and her infatuation with Sir Oswald Mosley and this one focusses on Unity Mitford who is setting out on her infatuation with the Nazi Party and with Adolf Hitler. There is a very real potential for interest and intrigue in this darkness, but it seems that Fellowes skips over that: the references to Hitler and the fascism feel more like a background nod than a theme.
Anyway, let’s turn to the plot, for which the growing European threat is a background.
The novel opens with the wedding between Guy Sullivan and Louisa Cannon, which has taken three books to come to pass, and which is interrupted by a British Union of Fascists rally led by Mosley. Fellowes moves us quickly via some domestic tension between Louisa and Guy’s mother in whose home they are living, to the cruise ship The Princess Alice on which the Mitfords are travelling. Initially Nancy Mitford tries to offer Louisa a place as a lady’s maid which she declines; but then Iain, an agent from MI5, recruits her to take up the offer and report back to him any information on Diana or Unity’s connections and contacts.
The ease with which Louisa accepted the task of spying on the family that she was close enough to to let them walk her up the aisle on her wedding day – itself a rather far fetched notion – seemed terribly disconcerting. And Iain, loosely based on Maxwell Knight according to Fellowes herself, was an intensely two dimensional figure. Perhaps I was spoiled by having read Kate Atkinson’s Transcription but the depiction of MI5 and the secret services was almost juvenile.
Whilst on board, however, Joseph Fowler, a fellow passenger is bludgeoned in his cabin and Guy, through some quirk of jurisdiction and a rather forced instance of authorial necessity, takes on the investigation until the ship docks in Rome. Whilst Guy investigates the victim’s private life and his relationships with his wife Ella and another passenger, Sir Clive Montague, Louisa pieces together a different story and narrative. Into the mix are thrown cabin boys and cabin maids, illicit loves and dodgy business deals, suspicious Nazis and secret agents.
The potential in the conflict between these different narratives and the question of where the truth lies amongst different narratives could have been a really interesting one, but it didn’t feel that Fellowes had explored it in much complexity or depth. Yes, it caused a split between Guy and Louisa – and their relationship never felt terribly secure to begin with despite both characters’ protestations of love and devotion to each other – but so many questions that could have been asked were brushed over.
And the setting – an opulent cruise ship – gave much opportunity for beautiful description and an intense claustrophobic atmosphere, especially combined with the time limit of the docking in Rome where any remaining evidence – or suspect – could literally sail away from Guy, or even the social division and tensions of the time… and yet somehow did not. There were comments made about these issues. It was noted in the text. But as a reader I never felt that these opportunities were taken.
Narratively, Fellowes alternates between the ship-board investigation and the subsequent trial, and I was not sure what the trial episodes added to the story. Beyond bringing Tom Mitford into the narrative, who has been conspicuously absent from the series, as a junior barrister. And he does seem one of the least objectionable of the family.
Fellowes does like to fictionalise real life murders in this series – certainly the first one did, although I am not sure about the others – and she tells us in the Historical Note that the trial and events are loosely based on “the real-life murder trial of Alma Rattenbury and George Stonor”. I’ll give no more away than that, but I wonder what the families of those two would consider of their treatment in the novel.
I am assuming that there will be a fifth installment to the series as young Jessica Mitford, the Communist sympathiser, has not yet had her turn in the limelight. And yes I will probably pick it up. At some point. But this is a series that perhaps has lasted two or three books more than it should have done.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 368
Date: 5th November 2020