Book Review: Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen
By Angie BarryNovember 4, 2019
The earth above us shuddered and the pale lights flickered, plunging us into a dark so absolute that our silently held breath seemed to echo our fear. A heartbeat later and we were revealed to one another again.
“Cuppa tea, ducky? Probably need one after all that galloping around.” The woman from number twenty-five held out an enamel mug of milky tea that she had poured from a large green tin thermos.
“Bloody Hitler,” she said without a trace of rancor. “He’ll be laughing on the other side of his face when the Americans get here. When are you going home, dear, back to your village, I mean?”
“Tonight’s the last night of training. I leave tomorrow morning.”
“Glad you made it through then, ducky.” She pulled a blanket over a sleeping child lying next to her on the platform. “Not everybody does.”
Below London’s battered streets we could feel the bombs shattering our city. I drank tea and waited for the all clear, when I would leave the sleeping families to go back up those steps to what was left of their neighborhood. Then the night would be full of different sounds: the shrill bells of ambulances and the deeper clang of fire engines. That would be when the digging would begin, and when the tally of who had really won and who had lost would be reckoned.
In the first entry in her new A Woman of World War II series, Tessa Arlen wastes no time in pulling us into the heart of her dramatic, dangerous setting: the height of WWII, with the Germans busy blitzing England nightly.
Heroine Poppy Redfern has wrapped up her Air Raid Warden training in London and returns home to her picturesque village of Little Buffenden where, she’s sure, things will be far less exciting.
Little Buffenden needs to be prepared for a bombing because of a new American Air Force base built on its edges, yes, but it’s a small village with small-minded people. Poppy foresees tedious patrols arguing with stubborn neighbors.
Unfortunately, things become a little too exciting when a local girl—and then a second—is found strangled to death. Everyone is convinced an American is to blame. “We never had such violence here before those pilots came,” is a constant refrain, and the murdered girls had been dating Yanks.
But when Poppy, disgusted with the village’s prejudice, begins digging into the murders—and meets the handsome Griff O’Neal—she suspects the culprit is far closer to home. In fact, the murderer may be one of Little Buffenden’s own…
Who in our village could possibly have a reason to murder Doreen? And even if they had a reason, was anyone among us capable of strangling a healthy young woman? We are a village of women, children, and middle-aged to elderly men. Little Buffenden’s younger fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons had long joined up to fight in the war, leaving very few men who would be physically able to commit the crime, which left me with a list of women and the same unanswered questions…
“Of course, we will win this war, even if the Americans hadn’t come to help us. You know why? Because we have Mr. Churchill.” Sid’s voice interrupted my list making. I had to stop myself from harrumphing in disgust because most people with an iota of brainpower know that Winston Churchill had crawled on his knees, for years, to the American president Mr. Roosevelt and begged him to come to our air. It was all such rubbish that I didn’t have the heart to start in on a list of how many women would like to do away with Doreen.
Arlen proved long ago with her previous works, set around WWI, that she has a knack for historical fiction. The Midnight Murders rings with authenticity, from the dialogue to the tension of a small village in the midst of war. Rationing, clothing swaps, blackout curtains, shuttered businesses are everywhere, as is the heavy melancholia for an entire generation lost to gunfire and the cloying fear of a possible attack or invasion.
The murders themselves often take a backseat to all of this color and emotion; this is a historical mystery where the emphasis is more on “historical,” making it a recommended read for anyone looking for a period piece with plenty of drama but very little gore.
The mystery is the motivation for Poppy to talk to her neighbors and creep through the woods at night, and it’s ultimately wrapped up in an exciting and enjoyable manner, but the main draw of The Midnight Murders is the rich, atmospheric setting—and Poppy herself.
The upper-class redhead is compared to Katharine Hepburn at one point, which is fitting: she’s a sharp, observant, independent gal capable of throwing a man over her shoulder when touched without permission, who rails against society when looked down upon for her gender.
“…What did he say?”
“Poppy, I can’t tell you. It’s police business now.”
I was so annoyed I wanted to biff him one. “Police business? But I was the one who told you to go to them.”
“Yes, I know. Please don’t be like that. I hate it when you get annoyed with me. It’s just that I gave my word to Constable Jones.” It was the boys-only thing all over again. You take the time to counsel some silly twit who hasn’t a clue what to do. He follows your advice, and then lo and behold you are immediately barred from any more information—simply because it’s boys only. If the Luftwaffe had flown over at this point and dropped a bomb on Sid Ritchie I would have cheered.
“Hi, there—I was hoping I’d bump into you… two!” I breathed a sigh of gratitude for the interruption, until I realized that the friendly voice in the dark was that of Griff O’Neal, the other man in my life who led a blessed and exclusive male existence where women were only welcomed to enjoy moments with them in the kitchen or hop in and out of their sports cars.
Arlen fills Little Buffenden and its neighboring airfield with interesting, colorful characters who feel real: the strapping Audrey, who’s terse with other girls but adores Hollywood actors; the patriotic and earnest Sid Ritchie with his myriad of health complaints, overbearing mother, and knack for mimicry; the aptly named, sour-faced gossip Mrs. Glossop; a pathetic Peeping Tom with a tragic past; the odd Mr. Ponsonby, who bird-watches at night; the jovial Viking-sized pilot Bill Peterson; and the slightly mysterious Griff O’Neal, who cooks divinely and waxes grandiloquent about his childhood at a California orange grove.
The Midnight Murders has a dash of romance, moments of action, and twists worthy of Hollywood thrillers. For a relatively light, speedy read, it still has plenty of meat and rich prose; Arlen has once again crafted a winner. It’ll be great fun seeing what Poppy Redfern faces next.