Published by Trapeze
Publication date – 13 May 2021
Source – review copy
Elaborately disguised and hidden deep beneath the city’s streets lies the world of Miss Brickett’s, a secret detective agency. From traversing deceptive escape rooms full of baited traps and hidden dangers, to engineering almost magical mechanical gadgets, apprentice detectives at Miss Brickett’s undergo rigorous training to equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need to solve the mysteries that confound London’s police force.
But nothing can prepare 23-year-old apprentice Marion Lane for what happens after the arrest of her friend and mentor, Frank, on suspicion of murder: he tasks Marion with clearing his name and saving his life. Her investigation will place Marion and her friends in great peril as they venture into the forbidden maze of uncharted tunnels that surround Miss Brickett’s. Being discovered out of bounds means immediate dismissal, but that is the least of Marion’s problems when she discovered that the tunnels contain more than just secrets…
If you go to Miss Brickett’s Bookshop, tucked down a London side street, you won’t be able to browse. The shop looks uninviting, grimy windows, books stacked dangerously high. But have the right key to fit the lock, know which lever to press and have the correct pass and you can descend underneath and find the secret it holds. That secret is a detective agency, run in underground vaults, hidden from view. But murder has come to those underground caverns and apprentice detective Marion Lane is determined to find out who amongst her colleagues has become a killer and why.
An underground detective agency accessed via a bookshop. Gadgets, dark deeds and deception. What’s not to love? I was immediately drawn to the story of Marion and her endeavours to prove her mentor was not a murderer and those instincts weren’t wrong.
There are elements of Bond with the gadgets and secrecy but without the misogyny. There are elements of a magical world what with underground bars, ballrooms, professors of something akin to dark arts and mechanical birds that can cause a handy distraction but without the wands and witchcraft. There are inventing rooms and training rooms, lockpicking workshops and secret mailboxes dotted around London, with a direct connection to the agency. It’s a fantasy land that makes the reader want to wander the dark corridors.
The mystery itself is engaging. Who killed Michelle White and why? There is a closed, lockroom feel to it, given that the victim was working in the mailroom of the agency at the time, the killer could only be one of the other agency staff. The question was who, and why they had been compelled to take a life. The murderer is revealed some time before the conclusion of the story and a cat and mouse chase ensues. The reasoning behind the murders is a little complex, and again adds to that magical feel, once it is revealed.
Marion is a lovely character. She is still struggling to come to to terms with her mother’s death. Living with her grandmother who doesn’t show much affection, she feels she may have found her home in agency and her family with her friends, fellow apprentice Bill and her mentor Frank. She was unsure why she had been selected as an apprentice for Miss Brickett’s but now she is there, Marion is determined to make it work and make her mark. The investigation threatens her possible career but her friendship with Frank, and the need to find the truth, is more important. She is caring and considered but also reckless. She doesn’t hesitate to start looking into business that doesn’t involve her, though she does so for unselfish reasons.
The main feeling I had whilst reading this book was how much fun it was. It’s always good to realise how much you are enjoying a book whilst reading it, and not after you have finished. I didn’t race through it, I could put it down (tropes which I find a far often not the case and that can lead a reader to feel like they are missing something if they can put an “unputdownable” book down). I am glad a savoured it. I looked forward to picking it back up again, looked forward to returning to this magical make believe world and I was already eagerly anticipating more novels featuring Marion and her friends before I had turned the final page.
The book is set in 1958 and there’s the sense of emerging from the post war austerity and perhaps greater freedoms. The old, the sense of style, of women’s position in the world, of rights and thoughts is juxtaposed with the technology being developed, the gadgetry that Marion and her colleagues use. It gives the feel of steam-punk but without the Victoriana.
There is much to like about Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder. Intrigue, a secret network of detectives, working sometimes outside the law. Secrets, cover ups and lies waging war with someone determined to find out the truth. If you like historical crime fiction with a twist then this book may be for you. If you like the idea of a secret network underneath a bookshop then this book is definitely for you.
Great fun, I enjoyed every minute of my investigations with Marion Lane. I’m looking forward to reading more about Marion and her adventures in the future.
About the Author
T.A. Willberg was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her mother, after whom her protagonist is named, is a trained nurse who worked at the Institute of Race Relations during the years of apartheid. Her father is German and a mechanical engineer with a wildly inventive imagination, and certainly the influence behind many of the gadgets in the novel. She now lives in Malta with her partner.