Mystery set in Brighton (“So good that I’ve already bought the next two in the Mirabelle Bevan Mystery Series”)

11th January 2016

Brighton Belle by Sara Sheridan, mystery set in Brighton of the 1950s.

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1951 sees Mirabelle Bevan retired from her wartime job with the Secret Service and living a rather lonely and limited life in Brighton. Following the death of her lover and hopes of a cosy domestic life, she has left London with all its memories and taken a job well beneath her capabilities in a Brighton debt collection agency. Life seems to have little to offer her, apart from frequent nips of whisky and the daily challenge of outwitting the beach attendant so she can occupy a deckchair for free and eat her solitary lunchtime sandwich looking at the sea.

When her boss, Big Ben McGuigan, takes some sudden leave because of illness, Mirabelle is left in charge and that’s when Bert Jennings shows up wanting assistance in recovering a £400 debt from a pregnant Hungarian refugee, Romana Laszlo, who has supposedly come to Brighton to have her baby. Mirabelle starts to work the case and soon finds that facts about Romana don’t add up and she just can’t resist doing a little detective work to discover the truth. For this, she enlists the help of the delightful Vesta Churchill, a young black woman who works in an insurance office in the same building as Mirabelle. Mirabelle and Vesta, when the latter can be persuaded away from her chocolate biscuit tin, uncover a complex and deadly plot, involving prostitution, Nazi war criminals and numerous brutal deaths.

Sara Sheridan is better known as a writer of historical fiction and one of the best things about this novel is the way in which post-war austerity, fifties dress, food (or lack of it) and décor are so brilliantly evoked. Sheridan also doesn’t shy away from spelling out for us the racism endemic in 50’s Britain. Vesta’s philosophical acceptance of the cruelty, insults and unfair treatment speak volumes.

Brighton Belle has all the necessary qualities of good detective fiction and thankfully it tells the story in a clear and straightforward manner. How unusual is that nowadays? But it does more. The setting combined with a female detective and female side-kick/assistant feels very fresh. Mirabelle, too, is a very engaging character and certainly not two-dimensional as many fictional detectives are. The only negative thing I could say about this book (and this is probably just a fault of my too-vivid imagination) is that Mirabelle is portrayed as a very elegant and sophisticated woman and yet she is described as leaping over walls and vaulting fences and I just can’t see that in 1950’s dress. Just ignore me – way too picky.

All in all, this novel is Sara Sheridan’s first foray into the realm of crime fiction but by no means her first book. She has written much in other genres and it shows. Brighton Belle is slick, fast paced, well-crafted and just darned good. So good that I’ve already bought the next two in the Mirabelle Bevan Mystery Series.

Praise indeed.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

Over to Sara who talks to us about inspiration, research and the process of writing the Mirabelle Bevan books.

I started writing crime quite by accident. I had an idea for a character from 1951. I was already an established historical novelist and had set a couple of books in an earlier period: 1820 – 1845. One day, having lunch with my father, he told me a story about a woman he’d seen on the pebble beach in Brighton on the south coast of England. In 1951 Dad was 13 years of age, visiting his grandmother for the summer holidays, and he’d spotted this well-dressed, glamorous lady dodging a deckchair attendant on the beach so that she wouldn’t have to pay a penny for her chair. ‘Odd,’ Dad said. ‘I always wondered why.’

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Sara Sheridan

As I walked home, I wondered too and I decided to write a short story for Dad’s birthday about it. To my mind it was going to be a comedy – this crazy woman who couldn’t bring herself to spend any money. Already an historical novelist, though, I committed myself to boning up on the period before I started. I knew nothing about the 1950s apart from having watched a few movies, so off I went to the archive and uncovered photographs, video material, acres of personal accounts and what I found was extraordinary. Only 60 years had passed and yet here was a different country – a place I recognised and yet everything was different – the infrastructure, the politics, the economy and most of all, the mindset. My generation talk about everything – here I am telling you about my father, for heaven’s sake! But in the Britain of the 1950s people harboured secrets of all sorts. From enforced secrecy about operations during WWII (governed by the Official Secrets Act) to the social unacceptability of issues which today are commonplace matters of discussion – homosexuality, extra-marital infidelity and divorce as well as a range of subjects which no 1950s Brit would dare touch upon: sex, religion, money, work, politics – all the good stuff.

I’d never thought of writing a crime book before but it struck me that this was an era of secrets and of mystery. I turned to writers I had first read as a teenager – Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh – and I read their work with a new understanding. Traditional or cosy crime has a reputation for being soft, but although these women were not writing graphic scenes of sex or violence, they were writing about subjects their contemporary audiences would have found profoundly shocking – forbidden love, unconventional relationships, illegitimate children, divorce and homosexuality. It seemed to me that modern readers had a completely false impression of the work of these classic writers. Their books weren’t safe in their day – they were just as edgy as police procedurals and forensic crime books are to a modern audience, though for a different reason.

I decided I was going to involve that woman on the beach in a murder mystery that would seem traditional but I wanted to find something that was edgy for modern readers, not violent or sexy but something that was still shocking – just like those mid-20th century authors had done. It was a bid, I suppose, to resurrect the true spirit of cosy crime. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for. Watching video footage from the era that included white people talking about black people and men talking about women, had me holding my hands over my eyes because I couldn’t bear to watch. We might talk about a wide range of personal subjects but sexism and racism are just as taboo for a modern-day middle class girl like me, as sex and violence were for my 1950s counterparts. I knew immediately that woman on the beach had been through hell and not only that, she lived through everyday sexism the like of which I could only glean from watching Pathe newsreels. I called her Mirabelle Bevan and I constructed a black sidekick for her – Vesta Churchill, an unconventional insurance clerk from south London.

I’ve never written a series before and it’s interesting how fond of these characters I’ve become. Mirabelle is scarred by her experiences during WWII and the series is effectively a bid to mend her spirit and more than that – it’s a testament to the difficulties so many women faced in those challenging times. Writing her story has given me new respect for my mother and grandmother who transitioned from being second class citizens with fewer rights than their menfolk, to today with legislative equality – things might not be perfect, but we have come a long way.

I’ve always found that reading my favourite historical novels is a form of time travel. That’s what most readers are usually looking for – a book that makes the world disappear and instead creates an alternative one that sucks them into its pages. I think I’m addicted to the 1950s now – to visiting a time that is very directly where my life came from and, like Mirabelle, unravelling its mysteries, one at a time.

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