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Elizabeth Wilson's War Damage is set during the previous austerity years, immediately after WW11 in the UK. Life is changing on many fronts and the period of living for the moment – because you don't know how long you have - is being replaced with a time of settlement, while the holes and craters around start to be filled or rebuilt. In Hampstead, London a routine has been established where Regine Milner hosts her 'Sundays' for friends of her and her husband. The guests make for an eclectic bunch with a few involved in the world of the arts.
The novel opens with one of Regine's Sundays, introducing us to a whole raft of characters (a little hard to keep up with, both at the start of the novel and later, but worth the effort). This particular Sunday ends on a sour note for, on the Monday, it is the police who come knocking on Regine's front door. An unidentified body has been found on the Heath and the only clue is a postcard in a pocket, one from Regine to Freddie Buckingham. The body is later confirmed as that of homosexual photographer Freddie Buckingham.
With homosexuality still illegal at that time, it's Freddie's lifestyle that first needs to be protected and covered up. But even that is not without ulterior and ultimately, selfish motive. Yes, everyone present has at least one secret they wish to keep buried under the strewn rubble of wartime. And is the friendship portrayed merely flotsam on the surface? The police, not ignorant to the obvious, pursue an investigation that appears hampered by pressures from above and related to potential (black shirt) Mosley connections. Detective Sergeant Murray may be the right sort of chap when it comes to an open mind in investigations, but his mind wanders on the personal side.
Period and place are expertly evoked by Wilson. Characters are so very real and compelling, if mainly unsympathetic, which is a hard stroke to pull off. As for the plot, think 'reader as a pin cushion', for Wilson finely pricks, time and time again with facts divulged, secrets laid bare and more twists than could be found in the twine of the time. Regine does not disappoint, at all. Early scenes indicate that she's a victim, a settler for security and standing, but she does prove to be a survivor and something of an opportunist as the chapters roll. You may wonder why she stands for such a shoddy and sub-standard sex life with Neville at the beginning, but all becomes clear.
With the class-divide prevalent, 'Who killed Freddie?' is the motivation for turning the pages; later enhanced by another related murder. Given all the secrets that abound, tension and suspense mount for those remaining and make for an engaging and demanding read.
Wilson is the current Visiting Professor at the London College of Fashion and her primary passion can be seen in the novel with a few references to the fashions of the day. If you seek a 'read it, hear it, see it, smell it, touch it' historical crime novel, you will find it all here. Dr Who's tardis could not do better in delivery and I felt pricked to heaven…
You can read an interview with the author at Byker Books here.