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THE UNKEPT WOMAN by Allison Montclair

For Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge, partners in The Right Sort Marriage Bureau in London, life is turning out to be uncomfortably close to William Faulkner’s quotation, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” 

Interestingly, Iris’ and Gwen’s pasts are completely different.  During the Second World War, which ended just a year before the novel begins, Iris was a member of the British Secret Service.  No longer a member of MI6, she is still bound by the agency’s confidentiality rules; there are certain things she cannot discuss, even with Gwen.

Gwen, on the other hand, has led a protected life, or at least she had led such a life until her husband, a naval officer, was killed in the war.  Heartbroken by his death, she became mentally unstable and was institutionalized at her in-laws’ insistence.  That, in turn, gave them control of her young son Robbie and her finances, which has led to her living, most unhappily, with them.

Although Iris is now a civilian, she hasn’t lost any of her investigative talents or her intuition, and she’s aware that a woman is following her.  Giving her the slip, Iris arrives at her flat only to find, much to her dismay, that her former lover is there.

A brief argument between Iris and Andrew ends in Iris leaving the flat to spend a few days with Gwen and her aristocratic family.  Then a strange incident occurs–a woman is found murdered in her flat, and not surprisingly the police at first believe it’s Iris.

Neither Iris nor Gwen is able to leave the past behind.  In Iris’ case it’s because Andrew has re-entered her life and brought with him the mysterious woman who was following her.  In Gwen’s case, she’s getting ready for an appearance in the Court of Lunacy (now known as the Court of Protection) to petition the Master of Lunacy for her parental rights and control over her finances.

Gwen and Iris are definitely sisters under the skin; despite superficial differences they have similar thoughts and feelings.  They are physically different and come from very different backgrounds, yet their outlook on life and the things they believe in explain their close relationship.

In addition to Gwen and Iris, there’s a cast of characters that weave in and out of the protagonists’ lives, some supportive, some not.  On the difficult side for Gwen are her formidable in-laws, Lord and Lady Bainbridge; for Iris, it’s the return of Andrew and all the unwanted baggage he brings with him.  Balancing that for Gwen is her son Ronnie, for whom she’s attempting to regain control of her life; for Iris there’s her somewhat tenuous relationship with Archie, her underworld protector.

The Unkept Woman is the fourth novel in the Iris Sparks/Gwen Bainbridge series.  As the books progress, readers can see the growth of both women due to two factors–their own strengths and personalities and the changing times and mores following World War II.

Allison Montclair is the pen name of the prolific author of historical mysteries and works of fantasy, horror, theater, and science fiction.  You can follow her at various sites on the internet.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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