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LAST RIGHTS by Barbara Nadel: Book Review

The houses are destroyed, the food is rationed, the nearly nightly bombing raids have the residents of the East End fearing for their lives.  This is London in 1940, as shown in Barbara Nadel’s crime novel Last Rights.

Francis (Frank) Hancock, third generation undertaker, is still reeling from his years in the trenches of The War To End All Wars. Except it didn’t, as the Luftwaffe’s bombings clearly show at the beginning of World War II.  Unlike most of the other East Enders, including his mother and sisters, Frank can’t be persuaded to go into the Anderson, the bunker-like corrugated steel paneled structure provided by the government outside his home.  Instead, Frank runs through the streets of his neighborhood during every air raid, recognized by his bemused neighbors as “the Morgue’s son,” until the bombing is over.

On one such night, Frank comes upon a man clawing at his chest and screaming that he has been stabbed.  Frank tries to stop him, not believing him, but the man curses and runs away.  But his body turns up at Frank’s undertaking parlor two days later.  The man turns out to have been a local tough named Kevin Dooley, with a vicious mother who is about to turn Kevin’s widow and her daughter out on the streets.

Although Pearl Dooley, Kevin’s widow, was abused by her late husband, she insists to Frank that she still loved him.  And maybe she did, Frank thinks.  Who knows what goes on between a man and his wife?  But the Dooley family, headed by Kevin’s mother, doesn’t want anything to do with Pearl, and when Frank tells the coroner that Kevin had told him he was stabbed, a further investigation proves that he indeed died from being stabbed with something long and thin put directly into his heart.

Even though Frank believes he did the right thing by telling the coroner that this might have been a murder rather than a result of the bombing, the undertaker is upset when Pearl Dooley is arrested for the crime. Given her family history, with a mother who had been hanged as a murderess, things don’t look good for Pearl.  And when Frank finds Pearl’s sister Ruby, whose own boyfriend has just died under suspicious circumstances, it simply adds more weight to the idea of “bad blood.”

Frank Hancock is a man who is still reliving his time in the trenches of Flanders. He’s an outsider in homogeneous England, having a white father and an Indian mother.  He’s a man who runs wildly and stutters during air raids.  He’s a man still dealing with his guilt at having killed German soldiers during the first World War, even though they were the enemy.

The characters created by Barbara Nadel are incredibly real. Frank’s sister Aggie has been left by her husband when he ran off with her best friend, and she dresses too provocatively for her sister Nan’s repressed tastes.  Fred, the neighborhood bobby, simply wants to clear the murder case without having to do much work in order to do so.  Pearl, Ruby, and the two other sisters of the dysfunctional Reynolds family have never recovered from their traumatic childhood and live in fear that someone is trying to get revenge for the killing more than twenty years earlier of their mother’s lover.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say one of their mother’s lovers, as each of her four daughters had a different father.  For its insights into war-torn London and its citizens’ psyches, Last Rights is a book to read.

You can read more about Barbara Nadel at

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