MARION LANE AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDER by T. A. Willberg (BOOK REVIEW)
‘I know who they’ve accused of White’s murder,’ she whispered. Her voice sounded unfamiliar, even to herself. Thin and worn, like her nerves.
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder is the debut novel of T. A. Willberg; it’s a wonderfully imaginative mystery set in a subterranean world beneath the streets of London.
Marion has been recruited as an apprentice into a detective agency which operates in utmost secrecy; beneath their book-store front, Nancy Brickett has converted a former World War II series of shelters designed for the wealthy into a sprawling organisation. Using gadgets designed and created on site, they work alongside and outside the law to assist the people of London in those cases which either get overlooked, or cannot be solved.
The novel opens with a conversational tone to the writing style that’s to the point and very easy to read, gently revealing titbits about this secret society through an unnamed and furtive character. It was a fantastic hook to draw me in, and the murder that followed (it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the damn title, right?) was so bizarre and, well, mysterious, that I simply had to keep reading.
When we meet Marion herself, there’s plenty going on with her to endear her to the reader. She appears to have a miserable home life, orphaned and living with grandmother hell-bent on marrying her off, Marion’s exciting new job is her escape. It was easy to get swept along with Marion as she was an easy character to like; she’s brave and head-strong, but she’s also realistic about her limitations, both personally but also in terms of losing her job – the one thing she has left. Consequences are important to her, and I found I really appreciated those being taken into consideration; she’s not your typical reckless Sherlock type.
I did struggle a little with the many other characters in the book; they didn’t make as strong an impression, and I sometimes had to flick back and remind myself of names and positions. I think this was because the driving element of this story was most definitely its plot – there are new revelations all the time and there isn’t a great deal of downtime. This also meant the story was quite isolated to within the agency; we didn’t really see much of London in the 1950s, and were it not for the connections to WWII, the time and place was superfluous. Willberg has said the subterranean nature of the agency was influenced by the underground networks both in London and the Maltese city of Valetta where she lives – and that could have made for a fascinating setting!
One other issue I had, related to the above, was that the story was so big, I think a lot of other aspects were pushed to the side. I’d have loved to have seen more of what the agency actually did, how they solved their investigations. I’d have loved to see some action in the field where there was less jeopardy so we could focus instead on the characters. I felt like I needed a book or two with smaller consequences to lead up to this one, so that by the time we got to this point, I had a stronger sense of the agency, its staff members, and what was at risk.
Despite all this, Marion Lane is very much a fun read, with plenty of twists and turns to echo the very corridors of the agency itself. It had a magic-school-camaraderie type feel to it; there isn’t any magic or fantasy elements in that regard, but there are plenty of catch-ups in the common room and whispered revelations in the library. The gadgets were a particular highlight – they almost felt like magic, but there was a very different kind of magic in reading about the secret uses of spy gadgets back in the early days of their inventions. Some of the gadgets required a suspension of disbelief, which is why I kept expecting there to be a “they’re powered by magic!” secret reveal; this isn’t the case, they are mechanical, so I think this is where the element of steampunk/urban fantasy starts to blend into the historical fiction.
If you’re looking for something a bit different, something with plenty of mystery and intrigue, that’s a fun and easy read, then this is absolutely the book for you.
Thank you Ellen Turner and Trapeze for the advance copy of Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder, which is available today.
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