Given that it boasts a chic, Glenlivet-supping heroine ostensibly named after one of the architects of the post-war British welfare state, it is not surprising that Sara Sheridan’s Brighton Belle is difficult to pin down in any satisfactory way. Sheridan’s new period mystery, the first of the Mirabelle Bevan series, demonstrates that the boundaries between the different sub-genres of crime fiction, having always been blurred, are now especially meaningless. Indeed, Brighton Belle effortlessly straddles such potentially contradictory categories as the cosy, noir, historical detective fiction, espionage, and feminist appropriation.
Mirabelle is not a professional investigator of either the private or the police type. Having been a backroom girl for the Secret Service during the war, she is working as a secretary in McGuigan & McGuigan’s debt collection agency in Brighton in 1951 when she finds herself drawn into Sheridan’s particularly British, conspicuously post-war mystery. The novel’s main plot kicks off when London wide-boy Bert Jennings hires McGuigan & McGuigan to track down pregnant Hungarian refugee Romana Laszlo (notably the surname of Paul Henreid’s character from Casablanca) who owes him four hundred pounds. Mirabelle embarks on her own unofficial investigation on behalf of her whimsically-named boss “Big Ben” McGuigan. On discovering that Romana and her newborn child have died, that their deaths have been met with a curious indifference by all those around her, and that no one trustworthy has seen Romana’s body, Mirabelle is unable to resist drawing on her war-time experiences and intelligence expertise to investigate. The intrigue increases as her boss disappears under mysterious circumstances, her old friend Father Sandor, a Hungarian priest and Secret Service informant, becomes involved with the case, and everywhere she looks she seems to find gold sovereigns, betting slips, or further corpses.
Although she is not averse to bending the rules, even to the point of repeatedly breaking into other characters’ homes and offices long before it seems necessary to her investigation, it quickly becomes clear that Mirabelle is a morally upstanding protagonist. In this sense, she does not make for a terribly nuanced detective, or seem likely to offer many surprises in terms of the plot. Mirabelle does show some signs of requisite detective dysfunction however, pining after her deceased Secret Service lover, a married man named Jack Duggan, who seems likely to haunt her throughout the series. Moreover, echoing Walter Mosley’s re-negotiation of race in the American hard-boiled tradition, the novel’s retrospective insertion of a strong female investigator into a post-war British suspense thriller is notable in itself, re-casting her within a long tradition of fictional male investigators.
This project is underscored by the emergence of Mirabelle’s sidekick, Vesta Churchill, a young, black, female insurance clerk from an adjacent office. Given that Winston Churchill was known to have expressed views that can be called racist and hated the prospect of women’s suffrage, the irony of her surname is foregrounded when she cheerfully introduces herself: “I’m Vesta Churchill. No relation”. Indeed, Brighton Belle takes what might be termed the Mad Men approach to history and identity politics, allowing uncomfortable instances of misogyny and racism in the 1950s to speak for themselves to the twenty-first-century reader without offering any kind of authorial intervention or retrospective analysis. A police officer, for instance, greets Vesta with the line, “My, rather exotic, aren’t we?”, and neither character nor narrator react. Even Mirabelle makes some observations which have rather reactionary implications about class and gender: “Mirabelle Bevan knew a prostitute when she saw one, even one who could sit up perfectly straight and wear her well-tailored dress like a lady”.
A cosy historical noir of sorts, which references texts as diverse as David Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) and Quentin Tarantino’s lurid Nazisploitation film Inglourious Basterds (2009), Brighton Belle is difficult to pigeon-hole. Nevertheless, it is a well-crafted mystery set in a curiously appealing fictive world.