I received a free ecopy of The Jazz Files from Lion Fiction via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. While Ms. Smith is a prolific writer of books, theatre plays and screenplays, this is her first novel in a mystery series featuring Miss Poppy Denby, niece of a suffragette, and aspiring journalist. This story takes place in the summer of 1920, a time of healing after the Great War, the coming of age of jazz music, its dance and fashion, and the yearnings of women to be fully-fledged citizens with all the rights that entails. Miss Poppy Denby embarks on an adventure that will have her come to embody all the elements of this period in British history as she develops into an intrepid investigative reporter.
The Jazz Files begins with a flashback to Guy Fawkes Day, 1913, and an unnamed woman in an unnamed railway station near Windsor. The woman is starving and freezing on this snowy November day as she’s in the same clothes she had been wearing when arrested along with fellow suffragette Gloria months earlier for firebombing the members’ stand at Lord’s. When released early, the women had split up to meet later at this station but as she approached, she heard the train coming and saw her friend seemingly pushed from the platform under the wheels of the train. She ran!
We skip to 1920 with Poppy arriving from Northumberland at King’s Cross station dragging her trunk and carrying a mystery story by a new author, Agatha Christie. There’s been a mix-up and there’s no-one to meet her. A good-looking photographer, Daniel Rokeby, from The Globe tries to help her and her independent attitude becomes apparent as she rebuffs his offers of accompaniment and takes a cab solo to her aunt’s house at 137 King’s Road.
Poppy’s Aunt Dot, a former actress now confined to a wheelchair, and her companion, Grace, were suffragettes, part of the Chelsea Six, organized by Lady Maud Dorchester, a friend of Emmeline Pankhurst. Maud’s daughter, Elizabeth, had also been part of the group but had spent the past seven years in Willow Park Asylum in Battersea. So much had changed. “Apparently there’d been an entire world war. She wondered if she would even recognize what was left of the world when she finally got out.”
Poppy’s strict Methodist parents have allowed her to travel to London to become paid companion to her aunt. However, Aunt Dot has invited Poppy so she can seek employment in London where there are vastly more opportunities for women than in Morpeth, Northumberland, and to help her learn about the new world of the twenties. It wasn’t as easy to find work as her aunt thought, but before too long, Poppy found herself employed as the assistant editor of the Globe — which basically meant she was organizing the editor’s office which was piled high everywhere with file folders that needed to be sorted alphabetically by slug (a codename for the topic). JF was a slug for Jazz Files: “any story that has a whiff of high society scandal but can’t yet be proven”. The Jazz Files had to be taken down to the 3rd floor morgue or archives.
Poppy is hardly on the job before she is sent on an arts assignment to fill in for an absent employee, and one of her co-workers falls (or is possibly pushed) over the edge of the third floor balustrade to the atrium below. The late Bert Isaacs had just received a mysterious letter — now almost illegible for the blood which had soaked into it — and had been working on a high society story concerning Lord Montague Dorchester, formerly an active opponent of the suffragette movement, now funding well-known feminist, scientist, and Nobel laureate, Marie Curie. Daniel and Poppy are sent to interview Lord Dorchester and this is the beginning of an investigation that leads Poppy to Paris, to Willow Park, and to threats and attempts on her life. It leads her through a maze of corruption and cover-up, moles and lies.
Smith has carefully woven a plausible and compelling mystery story around a combination of historical and fictional characters, true and imagined events. Her characters are diverse and typical of the period from Mr. Thompson the window cleaner with his horse, Bess, to Delilah Marconi, actress, dancer and socialite flapper, to the drunken Bottom in the Old Vic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the devious Archie Dorchester, and the corrupt DCI Richard Easling. The story makes interesting commentary on the death and destruction of the First World War and the even worse devastation of the Spanish flu in terms of life lost. It shows the advancement of technology in telephones, motor cars and X-ray machines and brings the real characters into the story in credible ways. The theatre and jazz settings are fun and there’s a map of Poppy’s London and a list of characters at the beginning of the book. Whether you’re a fan of mysteries or a devotee of the 20s scene, you’ll enjoy this novel right to the last page. * * * *
Marian Wilson, British Columbia
It’s very easy to participate in my Mystery Monday meme. Just post a review of your latest mystery read on your own site as your Monday post, and then a comment on my post with a link to yours. Drag or copy my meme logo and add it to your post along with these few rules. Simplicity itself! I look forward to learning about more great mysteries to add to my ever-growing list of To Be Read.