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World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.
As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.
If there’s such a thing as a “spy cozy,” In Farleigh Field would surely qualify. The novel is Bowen’s first foray into WWII spy-thriller territory, but fans of her Molly Murphy and Royal Spyness series will find the style both comfortable and familiar. I enjoyed it both for the story and the time period, but found it less intense than either the plot or subject matter might suggest. That actually makes it an excellent choice for readers who want to read about the period, but prefer their thrillers without too much violence or darkness.
Bowen has clearly done her historical research, and she’s familiar with the part of England where the majority of the story is set. She paints a believable (if perhaps a trifle stereotypical) picture of an aristocratic family coping with — and to some extent denying — the upheavals caused by the war. Most of those are familiar to anyone who has read about Britain during World War II. Food and petrol are rationed; there’s a thriving black market; villagers and country folk are housing evacuee children; young women (“land girls”) are doing much of the work on the farms as well as clerical work for the war effort. As with many of Britain’s Great Houses, Farleigh, the Westerham estate, has been requisitioned for Army use, and the family are reduced to living in one wing. There are concerns about German spies and sympathizers, and no one is supposed to talk about what they are doing or what they know. And the social rules that governed society, particularly for the upper classes, are disappearing like sand underfoot as the tide goes out.
The book is written in 3rd person limited. Lady Pamela Westerham (“Pamma”), who works at Bletchley Park, and the local vicar’s son, Ben Cresswell, working for MI5, are the main characters. Pamela is intelligent, principled, and sensible, except perhaps when it comes to Jeremy Prescott, the childhood friend with whom she is in love. Ben is likewise intelligent and principled, and chafes at the disability which keeps him from joining up. He is (predictably) in love with Pamela, though he has little hope. The novel also follows 13-year-old Phoebe, Pamela’s headstrong, observant youngest sister, and their elder sister Margot, who is trapped in occupied Paris. Other characters are highlighted for specific scenes. There are a lot of people to keep track of, and more than a few of them could potentially be German sympathizers or even traitors, leaving the reader double-guessing almost everyone’s words and actions.
As a spy novel rather than a mystery, there’s no murder to be solved, but rather a puzzle with potentially high stakes. The identity of the dead parachutist found in one of Farleigh’s fields is of far less importance than his reason for being there. Who was he trying to contact, and why? What is the meaning of the photograph he carried? In a way, it’s like solving a mystery in reverse: the goal is to figure out what mayhem is planned, hopefully in time to stop it from happening… but there’s not much to go on, and it’s hard to figure out what is and is not significant. That, as well as the personal relationships in the novel, is what I found most engaging.
I gave In Farleigh Field 4 stars rather than 5 for several reasons. First is the book’s predictability. While there were a few surprises for me, the identity of the main spy didn’t come as a surprise despite all the red herrings. I was also expecting several of the significant events, based on character type and my own familiarity with mysteries, spy novels, and WWII Britain. Second is that while I liked the main characters and connected with them to an extent, I never felt strongly connected to either of them. In fact, the characters’ feelings in general didn’t have the intensity I would expect under the circumstances. It’s not that they didn’t feel the appropriate feelings, but that somehow, I was never quite drawn into those feelings; I was an observer, not a vicarious participant.
Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the book, and would certainly read a sequel if Ms. Bowen writes one. The book works as a stand-alone, and all the important questions are resolved, but there are definitely threads that could continue. And of course, with both Pamela and Ben doing intelligence work, the opportunity for another book is there if Ms. Bowen wants to pursue it. I hope she does; I’d like to see more of Pamela and Ben and the intrepid young Phoebe.
A Conversation with Rhys Bowen
(This Q&A was provided by the publisher.)
Q: Although it’s a work of fiction, IN FARLEIGH FIELD is very closely rooted in the truth. Pro-German societies, like those referenced in the book, did, in fact, exist in England at the start of WWII. Some of the most dangerous were composed mainly of aristocrats who believed that making peace with Germany would spare the destruction of British national treasures. Because Germany respected aristocracy, having given up their own, some British assumed they would be treated well under Hitler’s domination. Do you think these people were motivated by arrogance or a twisted sense of patriotism? Would they have actually aided an invasion?
A: I think there was a feeling among some aristocrats that Germany was not so bad, that the Brits had a lot in common with the Germans, that Hitler actually liked Britain and felt them to be fellow Aryans. Certainly the Duke of Windsor (former Prince of Wales) displayed this sentiment, which was why he was shipped off to the Bahamas. For some it was a genuine sense of wanting to spare the population more merciless bombing and save national treasures. And I think there was a sense of fatalism that Britain couldn’t ever resist the might of Germany and would fall in the end. Remember that an invasion was imminent when Hitler suddenly turned his sights on Russia and Britain was spared.
As to whether they would have aided in an invasion? I can’t tell you. Luckily it was never put to the test.
Q: World War II created opportunities for women that would not have existed had so many men not been taken out of the workforce and put onto the battlefield. In the book, debutantes like Lady Pamela Sutton were sought after for government work, since they were “brought up to do the right thing. Hence will not let the side down and give away secrets.” In fact, the Duchess of Cambridge’s own grandmother was a “Bletchley Girl!” Did the war herald a new era for working women, or was it a temporary equality based on necessity? And what impact did the women have on the war effort?
A: Certainly the war gave women opportunities to prove that they could do almost anything. Look at Rosie the Riveter in America, and our Queen Elizabeth learning how to fix car and truck engines. My own aunt rose quite high in the British admiralty. She was in charge of equipment deliveries and would yell into the phone “I need those submarines by Monday. I don’t care what you have to do. Make it happen.” Then after the war all the men returned and she was offered a job as a secretary again. She quit and went into teaching. This was a common theme, I’m afraid. “Thank you for your service. Now go back to wearing an apron and baking cookies.” Look at all the 1950s TV shows glorifying the stable suburban family and “father knows best” mentality.
Q: Lady Diana is 19 and furious about the war. She was supposed to come out last year, and because she hasn’t had her debutante season and been presented at court, she’s stuck in Kent, dying of boredom. Despite doing their bit, it seems as though many aristocrats felt more inconvenienced by than invested in the early years of the war. Was the divide drawn along class lines, or did the sanctity of the countryside insulate them from reality until the war really did start to feel closer to home?
A: Of course they didn’t suffer the terrible bombing of the cities, nor the privations of food and supplies that city dwellers felt. People who owned land could at least feed themselves when others had to line up on the rumor that a certain shop had a shipment of cod or cauliflowers. The ration was a quarter pound of meat per person per week. But most aristocrats had their houses taken over by the government. Troops were billeted there, as in my story, or they became secret government departments, schools evacuated from the middle of cities or even hospitals for rehabilitation for men sent home from front lines. Sometimes homes were left completely trashed after the war—heads shot off statues, paintings slashed. And the upper classes certainly had their share of sacrifice of their own sons. My husband’s cousin’s family lost three sons on the same day, all three heirs to the property gone.
Q: While home on leave from her job translating decoded messages, Lady Pamela learns that the gamekeeper’s son is missing and presumed dead. Until then, her work had seemed like an academic puzzle, unrelated to real events, but this event makes her wonder about the importance of even the most menial of tasks. What toll did this kind of secretive, code-breaking work take on civil servants, like Pamela, who were key to the war effort, but oftentimes weren’t sure exactly what benefit their work was having?
A: I think that overall in Britain there was a strong feeling that every little bit helped, and everyone felt pride in helping the war effort. People donated precious books and metal for the scrap drives without complaining. I think you’d be amazed how strong national pride was and how deeply everyone was invested in defeating the enemy. The ones who must have felt the stress most were those like Lady Pamela who could tell nobody what she was doing, and the young men at Bletchley who were working on almost impossible code deciphering. They often had nervous breakdowns because of the strain of knowing that if they didn’t break the code, ships would be sunk.
What touched me the most in researching this book was that those Bletchley and MI5 workers could not tell anyone what they did during the war until the 1990s. So many parents died never knowing of the heroic work of their children, and husbands never knew their wives did anything other than office drudgery. So sad.
Q: You are also the author of two historical mystery series—the Molly Murphy novels, about a feisty Irish immigrant in turn-of-the-century New York City, and the Royal Spyness mysteries, about a penniless minor royal in 1930s Britain. The Royal Spyness books poke gentle fun at the British class system—about which you know a lot, having married into an upperclass family with royal connections. But you don’t just rely on personal experience to create such multi-layered, complex stories. How do you do the research to write with such a strong sense of time and place about three distinct eras in the early 1900s?
A: Research is one of my favorite parts of writing historical novels. I start by doing background reading for a book: I read the senate depositions after the Triangle fire when I was writing a book set in the garment industry. For the Molly Murphy books, I go to New York and walk the streets Molly walked. Then I have hundreds of photographs of old New York City.
For the Royal Spyness books I have a lot of biographies of the royal family, and I can actually visit places where I set my stories. My husband comes from an aristocratic family, and I get good ideas from observing his relatives and staying in their (rather large) homes. I spent one summer in Nice for one of the books, and this summer I was in Stresa, Italy, for next year’s book. Ah, the hardships of research!
Q: We have to ask, will your next book take us back to Farleigh Field or are you working on something that will take us elsewhere?
A: I may revisit these characters some time, as I left many threads unfinished, but the next book will take us to Tuscany for another WWII novel. More research hardships amid the wineries of Tuscany, I fear!