Book Review: Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers by Tessa Arlen

In the second novel in Tessa Arlen's Woman of WWII Mystery series, Poppy Redfern is back on the case when two female fighter pilots take a fatal dive.

It’s October, 1942, and former air raid warden Poppy Redfern has taken on a vital new job: keeping British morale high with rousing propaganda films highlighting wartime heroism. 

A month into her new job, she’s finally been handed her first project, writing the script for a short film about the Air Transport Auxiliary pilots at Didcote Airfield. Colloquially known as the “Attagirls”, these female volunteers ferry fighter planes and bombers across the United Kingdom to wherever they’re needed most, flying low and unarmed with only a compass and local landmarks to guide them.

Poppy is immediately impressed by the trailblazing women she encounters:

June looked around the room. “You are in the rarefied company of firsts: Vera Abercrombie is the first woman commander appointed to the ATA; actually, she might be the first woman commander anywhere. Letty is the first woman pilot to ever be awarded a Class Five license to fly four-engine aircraft. Sir Basil was the first flying ace of his company in the last war and then went on to design some of the most advanced aircraft of his time. Recruiting women to the ATA was his idea in the first place.” 

 

She had bowed her head to each as she acknowledged them. “And then of course there is our first star pilot: Edwina Partridge.”

 

I glanced at June to see if she was being snide, but her pleasant face expressed nothing but acknowledgement of Edwina’s skill.

Between the six lady pilots, there’s plenty of heroism to showcase in the film—such as daring Luftwaffe encounters and accidental foggy landings on Nazi airstrips—and Poppy knows this film will be an exciting one for theater audiences. 

But then the light-hearted day of exciting aerial maneuvers turns tragic, and the movie cameras capture more than hotshot pilots showcasing their skills.

I looked around me. Annie was staring intently at the plane. Sir Basil, Letty, and Grable were standing together, their gaze fixed upward. Only Zofia articulated what was happening. “She’s losing control…” she cried, and I noticed how strong her accent was. “Pull up,” she yelled. “Get that damned nose up.”

 

And as if Edwina had heard her, the plane started to level out.

 

“Thank God, she’s got it back again,” someone said. The Spitfire was hardly flying level, but it had stopped its terrifying plummet. Now it was coming toward us, flying just above the treetops.

 

Sir Basil’s voice, harsh with disbelief, lifted above the cries of distress. “What the hell are you playing at?” he cried out as the plane careened overhead. Neither a lady nor a bitch, and certainly no longer a creature of power and grace, the Spitfire was simply a metal tube with wings as it veered sharply to the right…

In the aftermath of the crash, the mechanics insist there was nothing wrong with the plane. The fault must lie with the pilot, who had been nervy and known to over-indulge, especially in recent weeks. 

But that explanation doesn’t sit well with Poppy. True, she’d only known the woman for a few hours prior to her death, but she’d struck her as a sober professional that morning when she climbed into her cockpit. Everyone readily admits Edwina was the ATA’s ace pilot, with thousands of hours and years of experience under her belt. How could she have so catastrophically lost control of her beloved plane while doing the most basic of tricks? 

A suspicious Poppy begins to dig deeper with the help of her friend Griff O’Neal, an American Army Air Force pilot (who may or may not be part of some clandestine secret department to boot), and the internal voice of her own plucky creation, Ilona. 

When a second Attagirl suffers a fatal crash, Poppy becomes convinced that someone is ruthlessly murdering Britain’s first women of aviation. If she doesn’t expose the culprit quickly, the rest of the Attagirls may soon fall out of the sky…

In the second installment in her Woman of World War II series, Arlen continues to deliver a well-researched story. The vivid sense of time and place rings true throughout, with the central plot liberally peppered with period asides about rationing, the sad fate of many English pets, and the necessity for blackout drapes, torches, and headlights. The introduction of the character Zofia offers a different perspective on the War, bringing to light her experience in Poland as the Nazis invaded. And the conversations between Poppy and Griff colorfully illustrate that old George Bernard Shaw idiom that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language”.

Arlen also uses the framework of the primary mystery to touch on a variety of deeper topics: the habitual reticence, reserve, and “stiff upper lip-ness” of the English; the stark divisions between social classes, even amongst the Attagirls; how the war truly reshaped life in Britain and paved the way for more freedom for women; and, of course, how pervasive misogyny is, forcing women to constantly go above and beyond. “Men will go out of their way to support a hardworking colleague if he makes a mistake,” Poppy observes to herself at one point. “A woman simply shouldn’t make them at all.” 

During a lunch with a man who initially seemed very forward-thinking and open-minded, Poppy is dismayed to hear the following:

“Women are more sensitive than men.” He nodded at the wisdom of his words and then glanced at me to see how they had been received. “I would never say that out loud, you understand. Our Attagirls are strong, highly intelligent women. All superbly trained; many of them do their jobs better than their male counterparts.” 

 

He pushed a piece of pie around on his plate, and I said nothing at all, concentrating on keeping my breath even. I could bet on it that [her] accident had been written off as an accident simply because she was a woman. Never mind that she was in her early twenties: fit, alert, and sober. She had flown more hours than most of the RAF top flyboys. Bosh, I heard Ilona say, what complete and utter bosh. I hate it when men say how “sensitive” we are. As if we crumble into tiny little pieces at the drop of a hat. Next thing you know, he will be blaming it on the full moon.

The feminism of Poppy and the Attagirls is handled with a light touch; Arlen makes it clear how frustrated they are by patriarchal attitudes—a universal, eternal female experience, sadly—but nothing comes across as out of place for the time. Poppy and the Attagirls are trailblazers moving into spheres once wholly dominated by men, yes, but they still feel like products of their age, and are characters who were inspired by actual heroines. 

As for the mystery itself, the story does suffer slightly by having key details revealed too hurriedly and in quick succession in the final chapters, which feels rather like a cheat to any clever readers hoping to piece the puzzle together before the ultimate unveiling. But that’s a forgivable flaw in an otherwise solid and entertaining story.

As with Arlen’s previous novels, the real fun is had in the journey, not the destination (though the fingering of the guilty party is exciting, too). The meat of the story lies in Poppy’s interactions with the Attagirls, hearing about their backgrounds and thrilling adventures as they perform dangerous, vital work for the war effort. Arlen recreates the dynamic past so vibrantly, you’ll feel as if you’re on the tarmac of the Didcote Airfield, watching the Spitfires and Mosquitoes roar overhead, no longer in historical black and white but in vivid, living color…

Through Poppy, Arlen has transported us to some of the most definitive scenes associated with World War II. First, to the London Blitz and an English village under a blackout, fearful of a bombing, and then to an airfield lined with fighter planes and bustling with pilots. Wherever Poppy turns up next, it’s bound to be an exciting slice of history.

 

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