Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose

Written by T. A. Willberg
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

London, 1959. In this the second of Willberg’s Marion Lane novels, she and her colleagues in Miss Brickett’s agency investigate the most recent murder by ‘the Florist’, so-called because of the rose branded on his victims. There is no mystery about who commits the murders (or more accurately, causes them to be committed)—we meet the Florist himself in the opening chapter—it is his motives that are opaque. Then the reader learns that Miss Brickett’s is less a detective agency than a Cold War spying organization with some macabre secrets of its own. In its subterranean tunnels spread out beneath an innocuous bookshop, the resourceful and resilient Marion watches her own back. A series of anonymous notes warns her that one of three new eccentric recruits she is instructing cannot be trusted. There are touches of magical realism—especially in the Department of Gadgetry, presided over by Dr Bal, with shades of James Bond’s Q—and an agreeable tinge of Harry Potter. It is peopled with engaging, sometimes grotesque characters and a sinister cult-like movement known as ERPS.

Some anachronisms mar the 1950s ‘voice’: the helpful map of Miss Brickett’s underground domain includes an ‘HR Dept.’ which at that time would certainly have been called Personnel, the heroine sleeps under a duvet rather than sheets and blankets, diazepam wasn’t launched until 1963 (though it was invented in 1959), a character uses the expression ‘he’s got your back’ (a very recent transatlantic import) and finally Marion wins £300—around £7,500 in today’s money, and so a colossal sum as prize money for a works quiz night. I’d recommend this book less as an historical novel and more as a quirky thriller; as such, it is a truly entertaining read.