Book Review: Murder at Wedgefield Manor by Erica Ruth Neubauer

In the wake of the Great War, American widow Jane Wunderly's pleasant stay at a perfectly proper English manor house is interrupted by a killer hiding in plain sight.

Wedgefield Manor is an aristocratic estate located in the “tranquil” Essex countryside. The year is 1926, a period that dovetails with Downton Abbey, the popular television show and movie sensation. Aristocrats are tightening their belts and making do with skeleton staffs since their former servants have more career choices after the war. A possible exception—in the aftermath of the Great War, England is flooded with veterans, many of whom have difficulty reintegrating into society because of visible and invisible wounds. 

American widow Jane Wunderly and her abrasive, match-making Aunt Millie are guests of Lord Hughes and his daughter Lillian at Wedgefield Manor. A little background: Millie and Edward (Lord Hughes) are Lillian’s natural parents. A little irregular perhaps, but Lord Hughes is now a widower (he and his late wife “adopted” Lillian) and the ladies are glad of a respite in the English countryside before they return home to the United States. A respite in Jane’s parlance is active, not passive. Not content with merely reading mystery novels, Jane takes flying lessons (even though Aunt Millie disapproves) from Group Captain Christopher Hammond. Aunt Millie is very strong-minded but then so is Jane. Jane is determined to remain single because her first marriage was a nightmare: her late husband Grant abused her mentally and physically. However, in Egypt, she met a handsome English banker, Mr. Redvers. In Murder at the Mena House, the first Jane Wunderly mystery, Redvers helped Jane solve a murder and coincidentally upended her life. 

Both upstairs and downstairs are affected when “one of the estate’s mechanics, Air Force veteran Simon Marshall, is killed in a motorcar collision.” Lord Hughes, for reasons that no one quite understands, has invited veterans not only to work for him at Wedgefield Manor but also join him at the dinner table and in the drawing room. Simon developed feelings for Lillian, Lord Hughes’s daughter. All of this comes to the fore when the local police start an investigation based on the unfortunate reality that someone sliced the brake cables of the car Simon was driving when he died in a single-car accident. Was Simon the intended victim? What about Lord Hughes? The car was his after all. Murder at Wedgefield Manor is a closed manor mystery. Readers are given a plethora of suspects, clues, and possibilities. Fortunately, the enigmatic Mr. Redvers arrives unexpectedly, happy to help Jane sort out a murderous situation once again.

Jane falls back on excellent advice for determining what causes a crime: “Follow the money,” closely related to cui bono; defined by “who stands, or stood, to gain from a crime.” There are more than a few possibilities. Lord Hughes’s heir Alistair, the son of his estranged brother, seems to believe that Lillian is his chosen bride although the young lady is single-mindedly focused on pursuing a career in amateur golf. Lillian’s dearest friend, Marie, who makes her home at the Manor, also harbors romantic feelings for Lillian. There is evidence (breadcrumbs and mice in an outlying building) that an intruder is skulking and spying. Lord Hughes and Jane are both taking flying lessons from Group Captain Hammond, another one of Hughes’s veterans who lives en famille at the Manor. Hammond’s war record is puzzling empty which concerns Jane and Redvers. 

Jane’s investigations are getting too close to the truth as is made clear one morning when she shows up for her flying lesson.

We reached the barn and Chris pushed back the large sliding door, a raspy creak greeting his effort, and we moved toward the little yellow plane, dust motes floating before us in the dim light. Almost immediately, we noticed a large wet patch on the ground beneath the engine compartment. 

 

“Oh, no.” I did not have a good feeling about this. The weather had been dry overnight, and it was unlikely the liquid came from anywhere but the plane.

She’s right: they both smell gasoline and Hammond finds out the fuel line has been cut. Why would someone disable Chris Hammond’s precious little biplane?

Jane is at loose ends without her morning flying lessons, so she takes a walk around the estate. During her stroll, she spots something shiny in the stream. She marks the spot with a rock and goes back to the Manor for boots. Martha, the talented cook, who always kindly provides Jane with that American necessity, a morning cup of coffee, points her towards a pair of oversized olive green Wellies. Things don’t go exactly as planned.

I was about to step into the water when I heard the fast crunch of leaves behind me, and before I could turn in the sloppy boots, I felt two hands on my back, giving me a firm shove. 

 

The water was freezing cold, and I felt rocks cutting into my legs where I landed on them. The stream wasn’t deep, but there was enough water that I was nearly completely submerged.

Jane Wunderly not only rescues herself, but she also keeps her eye on the prize. Before extracting herself from the water, she fumbles around until she retrieves the shiny object that caught her interest. It turns out to be a fork. She thinks to herself, “all this for a ridiculous piece of silverware.” But of course, she has unsettled someone enough for them to deliberately push her into a frigid stream. 

What’s next in the cards for Jane and Redvers, her resourceful beau, after they uncover the murderer? Will Jane ever wend her way back to America? We can ponder the possibilities while enjoying a cocktail, an homage to the omnipresent bar carts at Wedgefield Manor, just one of its charms. Aunt Millie’s favorite tipple is a whiskey highball, although when things are at their most dire, she falls back on straight whiskey. Bring on the next Jane Wunderly mystery please—her American intrepidness and ingenuity are a breath of fresh air.

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