Book Review: A Rogue’s Company by Allison Montclair
By Janet WebbJune 21, 2021
A Rogue’s Company, set in 1946 London, is the third and last Sparks and Bainbridge mystery. Readers will be sad to say farewell to this clever series, which shifts seamlessly from Mayfair to the London docks. Londoners grieve their personal losses post World War II, but they are resilient, embodying the motto “keep calm and carry on.”
Miss Iris Sparks (Cambridge grad and serial fiancée) and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (former debutante, widow, related to the Royals) opened The Right Sort Marriage Bureau, in 1946. They hit it off at the wedding of George and Emily Bascombe, where Gwen was the “match-maker,” for the seemingly mismatched couple and Iris, at the behest of the bride, quietly investigated the potential groom. Iris and Gwen were the fairy godmothers for the newlyweds…and what a felicitous encounter, as it resulted in their matchmaking business.
Both personally and professionally, things are going well for the partners: the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting on its feet and growing. Iris is working with Dr. Milford, Gwen’s psychiatrist, while Gwen is poised to start martial arts training. On the way to Gwen’s first session, the women reminisce about a pre-war musical.
“I liked Me and My Girl,” said Gwen wistfully as they walked along the Thames. “I thought Lupino Lane was terrifically funny. We saw it in ’37, not long after it opened.”
“Ronnie and I, of course,” said Gwen. “One of our earlier dates. What ‘we’ did you think I meant?”
“You just recounted a memory of him without starting to tear up,” observed Iris.
“I did, didn’t I?” exclaimed Gwen in surprise. “I’ll have to tell Dr. Milford. That’s—I was going to say progress, or something. I don’t know if it is.”
“If your goal is to reclaim your life so you can start living it again, then it’s progress,” said Iris.
According to Iris, progress for Gwen also includes “a hot and sweaty experience,” with a disciplined “brutish sort.” Iris is pulling Gwen’s leg a tad: she is describing the proprietor of Macaulay’s Martial Arts. Gwen thanks Iris for the introduction: “Library skills and martial arts,” said Gwen. “That’s what I wanted to learn from you.”
The partners are forced to draw upon all their reserves of intelligence, courage, and sheer bloody-mindedness when out-of-the-blue, Lord Bainbridge, arrives home from an extended business trip to Africa. His first words to Gwendolyn thrust a knife into her heart: “What’s this nonsense about Ronald not attending St. Frideswide’s?” Losing her son to boarding school and Harold’s insults about her business—everything he says and does threaten to upend all Gwen and Iris hold dear. Even Carolyne, his long-suffering wife, has had enough, telling Gwen she wishes she had the courage to confront her bullying husband.
“He has never needed me,” she said. “He has never put me ahead of his business. Not once.”
Then she continued up and went to her rooms.
Silence fell on the Bainbridge House. Not the silence of emptiness, but the silence of people holding their tongues, saying out of sight, not even daring to breathe loudly lest they incur the wrath of the lord of the manor, whose tyranny reigned even when he was no longer present.
Even with her beloved son Ronnie sent away to the same boarding school his late father detested, life goes on for Gwen. As the partners say, “The world must be peopled,” which means taking on new clients and making successful matches. When their secretary, Mrs. Billington, eagerly comes to their office rather than using the intercom, Gwen says, “You’re dying to tell us something. So, tell us.”
“He’s an African!” she whispered excitedly.
“Really?” asked Sparks. “From where, specifically?”
“Nyasaland,” said Mrs. Billington, pointing it out on the form. “That’s one of ours, isn’t it?”
“It is,” said Mrs. Bainbridge. “Very well. Give us a few minutes to review his information, then we’ll buzz you.”
Their potential client is British but unlike their previous clientele, he’s not white. Is it an issue Iris wonders? Gwen thinks so because they “have little experience dealing with people of his culture.” Indeed. The partners interview Mr. Simon Daile (pronounced Dah-ee-lay) and agree to take him on. Their conversation about how best to introduce Mr. Daile to suitable matches leads Iris to remember a time when she was working undercover at the Livingstone Club, an establishment beloved by African ex-pats. It was a very hush-hush, nightmarish, and dehumanizing mission (hence her resolve to work with Dr. Clifford).
A Rogue’s Company is an absorbing and bumpy ride. Lady Bainbridge is compelled to reach out to Iris Sparks for help after her husband and daughter-in-law are kidnapped and held for ransom. Mr. Daile, their latest client, is spotted cutting the shrubs across the street from Bainbridge House. He is a gardener but surely that’s too coincidental. Through her late husband Ronnie, Gwen is a major stockholder in Lord Bainbridge’s Africa-based company. Do all roads lead to Africa? Does Lord Bainbridge have a nefarious reason for wanting to paint Gwen as a hysterical, grief-stricken female, incapable of understanding a company’s financial records? Gwen does keep the records for the Right Sort Marriage Bureau as it happens. All questions are answered in Allison Montclair’s inimitable style. A Rogue’s Company is a tour-de-force, with unforeseen twists and turns, leading to a splendid and unforeseen conclusion.