Death of an Unsung Hero
by Tessa Arlen
Minotaur Books, 2018
Tessa Arlen's newest mystery, Death of an Unsung Hero, is the fourth in her series featuring the unlikely sleuthing duo of Clementine Talbot, the Countess of Montfort, and her chief housekeeper, Edith Jackson. The novels take place at the start of the First World War, and as this latest one opens, the war is grinding on and disrupting the monied tranquility of the aristocratic Edwardian world Arlen portrays with a gauzy yet accurate perception. Lady Clementine has prevailed upon her kind-hearted worshipful husband the Earl to transform the dower house at his country seat of Haversham Hall into an auxiliary hospital where men suffering from “shell shock” can recuperate, and she's installed her indispensable “Jackson” as its quartermaster.
These two have already seen their share of violence and death, and in their new adventure they've dedicated themselves to helping others who've seen violence and death – the shattered, fragile men being cared for at Haversham Hall Hospital are tending garden and being encouraged to talk about the savage wartime experiences that have sent them hold from the front. The ordinary folk and law enforcement of the local village, many of them veterans of the Boer War, tend to look scornfully on these men as cowardly malingerers; “What is it about these old Boer War veterans,” Lady Clementine wonders in exasperation, “that they simply cannot seem to grasp that modern warfare inflicts wounds on not just the body but the mind too?”
The violence quickly turns from psychological to brutal: one of the hospital's patience is found by another in a vegetable garden – a stark scene of man face-down on the ground with his head smashed in, a sight Lady Clementine impulsively insists on being one of the first to view:
She made herself look at the ground around the area; there were signs of disturbed earth everywhere. But there was order to the disturbance. The only footprints in the upturned soil were as orderly as the rows made by the man, who had dug them. There was no sign of a skirmish, of a fight. The stamped-earth path between the root-vegetable rows was hard and at least three feet wide at this end of the bed. It looked as if the captain had been standing on the lawn at the bottom of the bed, had been hit on the head from behind, and had then fallen forward into the row he had just finished digging.
Even in her shock, Lady Clementine can't help but notice small details – it's one of the many natural sleuthing talents she shares with Mrs. Jackson, and one of the gentlest and most enjoyable aspects of these novels is the way these shared talents draw the countess and the housekeeper into a realistically deepening mutual appreciation. Mrs. Jackson esteems her mistress for her generous spirit and indomitable will, and at a couple of points in this latest novel Lady Clementine finds herself noticing afresh that Jackson possesses “the dignity and bearing of a great lady.” In unobtrusive ways, their relationship is the most satisfying element of this series.
By this point Arlen has all the other elements down to smooth mastery. The first murder is followed by a second, the earl's young heir, home on medical leave from the front himself, is clearly dealing with trauma of his own, and the obvious solution to the chaos inflicting Haversham – that a hospital filled with psychologically unstable trained soldiers will naturally yield up one or more of them as the killer – is enjoyably complicated as the chapters go by. Readers with a sweet tooth for country house murders can't go wrong with this series, and readers of its preceding installments will appreciate the deepened solemnity here.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.