By T. A. Willberg
Take an Agatha Christie-style locked room mystery and set it in 1958. Dust it with some Harry Potter magic and you’ll have MARION LANE AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDER.
Marion is an apprentice detective at Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries, a secret agency founded by Miss Brickett and based in layers of a subterranean facility. From the street, it looks like a dusty, failing bookstore.
During World War II, it was a secret weapons lab. In much more ancient times, it was an alchemy lab. Deep in the forbidden, ancient portions of the facility, people disappear in dark tunnels; walls and doors rearrange themselves at will; and unknown secrets lie waiting.
To Londoners, the Inquirers are an urban legend: ghost sleuths guarding the city and reachable through secret postboxes. Some citizens believe they exist; others don’t.
Marion was rescued from the clutches of her dragon-like grandmother by Frank Stone, a high level Inquirer at Miss Brickett’s. Her grandmother, Dolores Hacksworth, was determined to marry her off to the first man of means she could find — a future that had no appeal for Marion. Frank’s proposal that she join Miss Brickett’s was irresistible.
As this book opens, a much disliked member of Miss Brickett’s, Michelle White, is murdered inside the agency. Frank, who was first on the scene, soon becomes the prime suspect. The clock is ticking to prove that he didn’t or he’ll be condemned to being locked up forever in a dungeon-like cell in the bowels of the agency.
The problem with this book is that there’s something rotten or disreputably careless about Miss Brickett. When her inner circle accuses Frank of murdering Michelle, it is on the shallowest of appearances. One would expect a crack investigative team to understand that something may look like a duck, but not actually be one. While they purport to be crime fighters serving those who don’t always get the attention of the police, agency investigators seem to go beyond investigation into judgment and punishment — vigilantism.
This book certainly has fun dimensions. They have odd and unusual tools. An Inquirer needs a nimble mind to put them to best use in real situations. There are plenty of catty politics and diabolical bad guys.
In the end, though, the flaws in ethics and credibility became more of a barrier than I could overcome.
About the Author: T. A. Willberg
MARION LANE AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDER is author T.A. Willberg’s first published novel. She writes historical crime and speculative fiction.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, her family moved to an area just outside Durban. She earned a master’s degree in chiropractic and moved to Malta, She began writing her novel there, inspired by the labyrinthine corridors under Malta’s ancient capital of Valletta.
Her mother (“truly the greatest, funniest, bravest woman I know”) inspired the character of Marion and her father, a German mechanical engineer, inspired the book’s many gadgets.
An animal lover from childhood, she has a soft spot for underdogs and outcasts, “which is probably why the cast of my debut novel is filled with characters who aren’t quite cool enough to be private detectives, but I gave them a shot anyhow!”