Brighton Belle is the first crime novel from critically acclaimed author Sara Sheridan. Her back catalogue is a combination of sharply written contemporary fiction and historical novels, impeccably researched and thick with atmosphere, which have taken her characters from the slave markets of the Arabian peninsula to the aftermath of the Opium War. The common thread running through these diverse books is the presence of strong female leads and Brighton Belle is no exception, launching ex-Secret Service operative Mirabelle Bevan into the seamy world of post-war Brighton.
It’s 1951 and although the Nuremburg trials are over there are reminders of the war everywhere, rationing is still in force and swathes of London are razed to the ground. In Brighton Mirabelle Bevan is quietly mourning for her married lover and the promised future which has been snatched away from her by his premature death. She is living in a numb twilight, existing on crackers and Glenlivet, working for a debt collection agency. Which isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Not until her boss goes down with flu and she finds herself in sole charge of the office when a dapper Londoner comes in wanting to track down a young Hungarian woman who’s hightailed it to Brighton with a baby about to drop and four hundred pounds of his money.
With her boss away for a few days Mirabelle tells herself it’s only natural she should make some discreet inquiries. Quickly she discovers that the missing woman Romana Laszlo has died in childbirth, along with her baby, and that everything is being smoothed over very efficiently by her sister and a local doctor who seems to have come into money suddenly. She also discovers that the thrill of the chase makes her feel more alive than she has for years, temporarily shaking her out of her grief and making the most of her wartime expertise.
Romana Laszlo isn’t the only person to suffer a suspicious death in Brighton though. A wealthy Spanish businessman has been murdered in his suite at The Grand Hotel, after an exhaustive session with a high-class call girl, and it doesn’t take Mirabelle long to sniff out the connection. She enlists the help of Vesta Churchill, a young Jamaican woman who works at the insurance company in her building, and they get much closer to the action than is safe for either of them. From this point the plot really begins to fly, moving into dark and brutal territory which reveals that the declaration of peace rarely marks the end of conflict.
On the surface Brighton Belle has all the hallmarks of a cosy crime novel, picturesque seaside setting, abundant period details and a feisty amateur sleuth with a rather fabulous wardrobe, but there is more than a touch of noir to this book and Sheridan gleefully dives into the seedy side of Austerity Britain. We follow Mirabelle through Notting Hill dives and Soho nightclubs, on a house breaking mission to one of London’s better streets, and to an atmospherically worked race meet which felt like a respectful nod to Graham Greene. Can’t quite imagine Miss Marple holding her own in such insalubrious settings.
Brighton Belle is perfect autumn reading, dark and cosy, the kind of book you’ll whip through in one long evening. Sara Sheridan has an engaging style and she’s created an appealing character in Mirabelle Bevan, tough without being clichéd, a real product of the period. For the first in a series Brighton Belle is highly assured and Sheridan’s literary pedigree shines out in her deftly written characters and evocative prose. I will definitely be looking out for the next instalment of this series.