Mar 13 2018 3:00pm

Review: Death of an Unsung Hero by Tessa Arlen

Brimming with intrigue, Tessa Arlen's Death of an Unsung Hero brings more secrets and more charming descriptions of the English countryside to the wonderful Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson series (available March 13, 2018).

In the summer of 1916—while the Great War rages on across the Channel in France—Lady Montfort opens her dower house to a group of shell-shocked soldiers. The newly dubbed Haversham Hall Hospital is championing medical techniques most of society looks askance at—talking and working cures.

Clementine, the Lady Montfort, and her devoted servant/sleuthing assistant-turned-head nurse Mrs. Jackson are all passionate defenders of these unconventional treatments. After seeing firsthand how poorly many of the traumatized soldiers are treated in traditional hospitals, Clementine is determined to convince the War Office that her Haversham doctors are making genuine progress—that their patients improve significantly under their supervision.

The adjudicators are due to arrive in little more than a week. Their decision could see more patients arriving—or the entire hospital shut down. Which makes the sudden discovery amongst the potatoes doubly devastating.

Phipps staggered forward, his face as white as the plaster on the walls of the potting shed, his eyes wild. He stopped and cried out a few incoherent words and then froze in his tracks.

“He’s in shock,” Budge said. He put a strong supporting arm around the lieutenant and gently lowered him to a bench… The young man, for Phipps was barely twenty, dropped his head and his sobs died to weeping.

“Head smashed…” he managed, and then he started to stammer. “S-s-smashed … head all smashed in.”

“It was just a hallucination, sir,” Budge said firmly.

“Don’t be so d-d-damned daft, Budge,” Phipps said, looking up at the orderly. “I haven’t been ‘seeing things’ since I left Dottyville. Captain Bray is in the kitchen garden, lying facedown in the dirt with his head smashed in. S-s-someone—” he paused for breath and made the effort to keep his voice steady— “has bloody well done him in.”

The local constabulary is quick to pin the blame on one of the “madmen” at the hospital. But Clementine and Jackson are sure there’s more going on than a patient having a bad turn and mistaking Captain Bray for a German. None of their patients are so unbalanced.

At least, they hope not.

But what motive could there be to kill Captain Bray, a highly-decorated hero with a terrible case of amnesia? The Captain was antisocial, yes, but who could blame him after all of his experiences?

While Clementine is forced to entertain the late Captain’s brother, Edgar, who visits in the hopes of reuniting with his brother only to find himself planning his funeral, Jackson digs into motives at the hospital.

Could the young VAD nurses’ schoolgirl crushes on the tragic soldier have soured into murderous rage? Could the locals’ belief that the patients were cowardly malingerers driven one of them to bludgeon the Captain while he worked?

Was someone afraid of Bray regaining his memory?

Things get even more tangled when it becomes clear that someone is hiding something—or someone—and suspects fail to produce alibis. The Inspector proves to be a rude, arrogant man happy to pin the blame on the easiest scapegoat.

And Clementine is distracted by concerns for her son, home on medical leave and drinking far too much brandy, and daughter, who spends far too much time alone with young soldiers.

Death of an Unsung Hero is as much about the medical challenges of the Great War as it is a murder mystery. The “stiff upper lip” attitude of traditional Britain conflicted violently with the horrors the soldiers suffered in the trenches. Simply “manning up” and soldiering on proved untenable, and when the men shut down mentally and physically, society insisted on shaming them rather than sympathize with their plight.

“We have discovered in recent months that it is often our ‘heroes,’ the men who take the most risks, putting their men’s welfare before their own, who continually perform acts of bravery, that are more likely to become victims of neurasthenia or shell-shock, as it is more commonly referred to, than other officers. Their men are devoted to these officers and trust them implicitly, and their senior officers value their courage and leadership. But under continued and increasing pressure and stress they suffer from depression, which deepens and often leads to manic acts of courage…” He paused for a moment. “And then if they are not killed in action, they simply break down.”

Captain Bray, the unsung hero of the title, is a truly tragic figure. After all of his acts of bravery, after surviving a battle that decimated his men, after slowly pulling himself out of his shock, he’s brutally cut down in a peaceful garden. Even in the midst of a brutal war, it’s a cruel act that cannot be allowed to go unpunished.

Clementine and Jackson are as determined to see his killer brought to justice as they are determined to vindicate their hospital’s techniques and, in so doing, prove to the world that their young men deserve kindness and support instead of derision.

“Every one of our officers say they want to return to the war as soon as they are able. Our job here, you see, is to help them function so they can lead their men in battle.”

Jackson saw Mr. Hollyoak’s look of disbelief and she stepped it up a notch. “They know they are thought of as cowards, they are painfully aware of it. What is the expression they use in the navy—swinging the lead?” Mr. Hollyoak acknowledged malingerers with a fervent nod. “We are low in numbers this week as thirteen of our twenty patients passed their Medical Board review and are now on their way back to the Western Front, to Mesopotamia, and Egypt. They went willingly and with brave hearts.”

She caught his eye and tried to hold his gaze but he turned, reaching for his cup. When he had it in his hand she sought his eyes again. “Strangely enough, most of them here were decorated for bravery—before they became seriously ill.”

He raised his eyebrows and took a sip of tea. Yes, I thought that might surprise you.

In this fourth installment of the Lady Montfort series, Arlen has deftly balanced historical commentary and research with a vivid cast of characters and a poignant mystery. It can be painful reading at times, as the narrative reinforces and underscores the very real struggles faced by WWI soldiers and the families they left behind. But, ultimately, it’s a rewarding read.

Clementine and Jackson remain far more capable than the male constabulary will openly admit, while the turbulent setting of a country estate quickly shifting in the grip of war adds a frisson of fear and excitement. While the resolution isn’t a shocking surprise, there are enough original flourishes to keep the climax from being wholly predictable or disappointing.

With its strong female characters, contrast of upstairs/downstairs life, and dangerous twists in the well-laid plot, Death of an Unsung Hero will entertain fans of criminal procedurals and Downton Abbey alike.

Read an excerpt from Death of an Unsung Hero!


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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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