The Unkept Woman (Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery, 4)

Written by Allison Montclair
Review by Beth Kanell

The Unkept Woman may be one of the most entertaining historical novels of the summer. Start with a marriage bureau, “The Right Sort,” that Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge are running in London in 1946, in a postwar boom for settled romance. Add in Iris’s current flame, a gangster. (She handles this with panache.) And then there’s Iris’s wartime past working for an intelligence agency that might pull strings to lure her back into the ranks.

But there’s a darkening thread throughout, as various elements of Iris’s life develop into criminal threats, and as the widowed Gwen struggles for control of her son as well as her finances and life path. At first, Iris is inclined to laugh off the clumsy Polish surveillant who follows her to work one morning. Yet there’s deeper threat here than a confusion about who can marry whom.

Because both Iris and Gwen are strong and self-determining, the dangers that develop look manageable and intriguing. All the characters—the women sleuthing, the boyfriends, the police, even the criminals—offer dry humor as well as realistic emotions when facing risk and challenge, even murder. And the plot threads include not only Polish patriots but the nastiness of threatening independent women with forced lunatic lockups and cleverly tangled knots of espionage, romance, and loyalty.

In short, if Georgette Heyer and Helen MacInnes had a pair of nieces who’d grown up sophisticated, confident, and tough, this might be their story. Every chapter has a twist, and the resolution is highly satisfying. Smart teens can also read it without having to ask embarrassing questions. Bring it home for the summer TBR stack and keep it for an enjoyable reread later.