Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: July 26th, 2022
Pages: 320, hardcover
The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals – Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris’s past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son – a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.
Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.
Many times, a promising series begins to fizzle out after several books. That is not the case with Allison Montclair’s Sparks and Bainbridge mysteries. The Unkept Woman is fourth in what I hope is a long-running series, and is, if anything, as strong or even stronger than the other volumes.
This time, Gwen is preparing to regain the life stolen from her when she spiraled into depression after her husband’s death during WWII. She is told that her behavior will not stand the scrutiny of the exam board, and that she needs to stick to matchmaking and avoid investigative work. Unfortunately, helping Iris with a ghost from her past may cost Gwen her son and her freedom.
This book authentically captures the struggles of working women of various classes. Even with all the war work women performed, they are still treated as second-class citizens and people with mental health issues aren’t treated much better than they were in Bedlam days.
Gwen and Iris are strong, confident characters, and the books are worth reading for them (and Sally!) alone, but the personal relationships between them, and their larger group of friends and family, provide even greater depth and examination of the culture and mores of the post-WWII austerity years. Both women are damaged, both are flawed, but both rise to overcome their pasts and are determined to be masters of their own destinies.