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the-wages-of-desire

Although the cover art suggests a village cozy, this is actually a countryside police procedural in WWII England. So on target is the author’s tone that I double-checked the copyright date. The stiff upper lip atmosphere reflects the period, with the air of just getting on with things, even when there are some emotional situations.

The unexpectedly complicated plot unwinds like a series of knots on a looped rope, continuity disappearing even as it’s apparently straightening along the way. The start and nexus of the convolutions is the dead woman in the churchyard, a bouquet in her hand for a grave, and a bloody bullet hole in her back. Everything from rationing to the IRA, conscription, “conchies” or conscientious objectors, lust to love, sibling rivalry to long-missing children, and stolen identities will be knots in the loop.

This is the second in a series. I haven’t read the first book, and had some trouble keeping the various coppers straight, because of their uncolored behaviors. Although Kelly does allow them interior monologues, even the series lead, DCI Thomas Lamb, and his 19-year-old daughter Vera, momentarily filling in as his driver in a war-depleted local force, rarely show their rather lively feelings.

Which, of course, is the predominant world view there and then. However, there are some well-limned characters, including a believably eccentric countrywoman, an at-loose-ends 12-year-old girl whose father’s off fighting while her mother’s doing night shift war work, a delusionally romantic cleaning woman, and a rector who is anything but correct, among others.

It all unravels for the best, into a clear straight line.

There was little of fireworks (bombs aside, of course) in the countryside and small towns of England during the war, but folk will be folk, and there wouldn’t be a murder mystery without some serious tension. In a quiet way, Stephen Kelly fills this world with stolid grey coppers, and colorful civilians breaking through for better or worse; they keep on keeping  on. An atmospheric period procedural with some restrained flourishes, it works.

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