Posted in Netgalley

Miss Aldridge Regrets by Louise Hare

London, 1936

Lena Aldridge is wondering if life has passed her by. The dazzling theatre career she hoped for hasn’t worked out. Instead, she’s stuck singing in a sticky-floored basement club in Soho and her married lover has just left her. She has nothing to look forward to until a stranger offers her the chance of a lifetime: a starring role on Broadway and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary bound for New York.

After a murder at the club, the timing couldn’t be better and Lena jumps at the chance to escape England. Until death follows her onto the ship and she realises that her greatest performance has already begun.

Because someone is making manoeuvres behind the scenes, and there’s only one thing on their mind…

MURDER

Miss Aldridge Regrets is the exquisite new novel from Louise Hare. A brilliant murder mystery, it also explores class, race and pre-WWII politics, and will leave readers reeling from the beauty and power of it.

This is one of my most anticipated books of the year, mainly based on how much I loved her debut This Lovely City, but also because I loved the sound of this mix of historical fiction and murder mystery. It doesn’t disappoint and really has the feel of an Agatha Christie novel, not just the plot either, but the glamorous location, the wealthy passengers and the sumptuous descriptions of their clothes and jewellery. The story has its period detail spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. Woven within this whodunnit are themes of identity, belonging, family and class division. It’s gripping without being showy or depending on shocks, or endless twists and turns. It’s elegant and allows it’s secrets to unfurl slowly.

Lena is a sympathetic character, who has sacrificed the start of her own career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died after a long illness. In order to pay the bills Lena has worked with the club band, but she has ambition and has always wanted to work in the theatre, preferably the bright lights of the West End or Broadway. We get the sense that she’s good enough too. We meet her first as she embarks on her voyage across the Atlantic with a theatre producers assistant, strangely named Charlie Bacon. Charlie has offered her the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. This is a favour from Charlie’s boss who once knew Alfie and felt he owed him for an old transgression. The cabin is first class and Lena has never had such luxury, in fact she has a suitcase of clothes from best friend Maggie because she didn’t own anything grand enough for the first class dining room of the Queen Mary. There’s a sense in which she doesn’t feel like herself, sailing on someone else’s charity, in grand society and in someone else’s clothes. She then finds herself dining with the Abernathy’s. The head of this wealthy family is their father Frank, now disabled due to a stroke (apoplexy) but once an absolute tyrant and still uses the family riches to manipulate his children and grandchildren. Alongside the family are Frank’s assistant Daisy and his own private doctor.

At first Lena is a little intimidated by this entitled and often quite unpleasant bunch. This is a mix of knowing she isn’t of the same class, perhaps opting to gravitate towards Daisy and Dr. Wilding who are the help. However, Lena’s whiff of stardom seems to satisfy the family that she is suitable company and she’s certainly glamorous enough to fit in. However, there’s also the question of race, brought to the fore when Lena encounters one of the ship’s band Will. Will isn’t fooled by glamour or the first class ticket when they meet out on the deck by accident. He doesn’t even ask, simply identifies her as black like him. At first she denies this, not wanting to be found out. Lena has always been able to ‘pass’ because she is so light skinned, but later when she sees Will again she trusts him a little more and owns her identity. It brings home to us the difficulties of being mixed race, perhaps worse for Lena who has never known her mother and didn’t grow up with that side of her identity explored. We can only imagine the taboo nature of a relationship between a black man and a white woman in the early 20th Century, a time when eugenics was gaining a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic. There is discussion at the dinner table of Adolf Hitler and his successes in improving German life after WW1, but this is the run up to WW2 and knowing what comes next in the name of racial purity made this a sobering experience as a reader. Lena isn’t just playing with identity here, in America it may have an impact on her ambitions and her place in society. As Will observes its okay for the black men of the band to entertain the rich and white passengers, but not to fraternise with them and he’s very careful that he and Lena are not seen together. However, when Lena is asked down to steerage for an evening of music in the bar there, it is the most fun she seems to have on the whole voyage. It’s the only time she’s not on tenterhooks and can relax. She feels like she’s with her own kind – people without money and influence, people who scrape by, who play music and really let their hair down.

Yet, she is accepted upstairs and is a hit with both Eliza Abernathy and her daughter Carrie. Lena is invited to tea, asked to go bathing and meets up for drinks. She likes Carrie who seems so young and controlled by her family, desperate for some company of her own age. Eliza is Frank’s daughter, rather aloof at first and seemingly unaware that her husband is seducing Frank’s assistant Daisy when no one is looking. None of the family seem particularly happy, with a lot of sniping at dinner and all the vices of drinking, gambling and … It makes Lena nostalgic for her father and the easy way they got along, and also Maggie who despite her difficult marriage and the terrible drama of her husband Tommy’s recent murder, has always been like a sister to Lena. It’s a huge shock when the rich family patriarch starts to choke at dinner. Dr. Wilding springs into action, but it becomes clear nothing is obstructing his airway and he starts to foam at the mouth. Lena is horrified, he’s acting the same way Tommy did and rather horrifically he dies at the table. An investigation is started immediately and everyone is interviewed. We are privy to Lena’s thoughts and she’s terrified that what happened at the club has happened again here. She didn’t poison him, but maybe someone knows something about Tommy’s murder. Are they taunting her? Is this something to do with her? Surely its too much of a coincidence. The proximity of the group and the inability to get off the boat adds to the tension of the novel. Who will be next?

I thought the mystery was well thought out and unexpected too. There were a couple of moments where I wanted to shake Lena or shout at her not to do something. It really brings home to us that here Lena is alone in this new life. She’s without family and friends to protect or support her. As the bodies begin to pile up I was asking questions of everyone in the party, even Lena herself – could she be an unreliable narrator, committing crimes without really knowing? It all seemed such a big coincidence, but then when the revelations started coming it all made sense. I can honestly say I didn’t have a clue what was coming for Lena’s private life, or who was next in the murderer’s firing line. I thought the pace was perfection and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Queen Mary, however luxurious, really added to the tension. The opulence of the setting, the fashion and Lena’s new wardrobe are dazzling and so perfectly in tune with the time period. I loved the author’s depiction of difficulties in identity and the distinctions of race and class for these passengers. The contradiction that the band are allowed to entertain first class passengers, but not sit with them, is something that will stay with me. As will the idea of ‘passing’, an interesting part of my own identity as someone with an invisible disability who sits uncomfortably between people with disabilities and the able-bodied. I loved This Lovely City and I think with this novel Louise Hare has repeated her success. I’ve already ordered my special signed copy, because this is definitely a keeper.

Published by HQ 28th April 2022

Meet The Author

Louise Hare is a London-based writer and has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Originally from Warrington, the capital is the inspiration for much of her work, including This Lovely City, which began life after a trip into the deep level shelter below Clapham Common. This Lovely City was featured on the inaugural BBC TWO TV book club show, Between the Covers, and has received multiple accolades, securing Louise’s place as an author to watch. Miss Aldridge Regrets is her second novel.