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Review: Death at Greenway, by Lori Rader-Day
Morrow, 2021. 414 pp. $28

Bridget Kelly, a nineteen-year-old nurse-in-training, has been dismissed from a London hospital, probably an unusual occurrence to begin with. Worse, this is April 1941, wartime, and with nurses in such short supply, you just know Bridget must have messed up horribly. In her parting words, the nurse matron has harangued Bridget for coldness, arrogance, inability to concentrate, and more besides. Whew.

But Matron has given her one last chance: to accompany a group of young children to Devon, where they’re to be evacuated for the war’s duration, presumably safe from the bombs hitting London daily. The country house that will be their billet belongs to Agatha Christie, a fact of no consequence to Bridget, who doesn’t read stories — they hit her in the gut, literally.

Agatha Christie, Dame of the British Empire, in 1958; photo of a plaque (courtesy Torre Abbey.jpg: Violetriga, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rather, she’s wondering how to manage ten children, a chore that scares her, and for which she thinks she has no aptitude. Meanwhile, she’s reeling from the deaths of her mother and younger siblings from a German bomb, so the sight of any child can be dangerous for her.

When she first sets eyes on her charges-to-be at the train station, her heart sinks, because she has imagined older children, easier to care for:

The children were tots, baby fat in their knees below shorts and skirts, socks pulled up or sliding, shoes scuffed or untied. They had tags affixed to their coats and child-sized gas masks in paper cases and straps around their necks. They wore caps or hats or bonnets and flung them to the ground in a tantrum. Those who were carried by their mums kicked to be let down. Two were infants, dear God.

But Bridget has one hope, a fellow nurse to share the load — until that nurse, who claims also to be named Bridget Kelly, doesn’t seem to know the first thing about children, the human body, or caring for anyone else’s needs. For that matter, as Bridget discovers, few people or things she runs across are as they seem. No sooner have they arrived in Devon than she has her doubts about the house staff, the people leading the evacuation, and the local characters, whose intense suspicion of outsiders may have a darker side.

Her skepticism is often warranted, but as Matron’s criticisms ring repeatedly in her ears, you begin to wonder just what was going on there. For instance, is Bridget really arrogant? Hardly; she’s too self-effacing by half. She only seems withdrawn, because when circumstances call for intense emotion, her post-traumatic stress kicks in, manifesting itself as the aforementioned hits to the gut. And that, of course, she can’t reveal.

But that’s only for starters. As she tries to settle in, an intruder or two stalks the property, precious food supplies go missing, and, eventually, a dead body washes up on shore. Connected events, or coincidental?

Mysteries and thrillers generally go by the moniker of plot-driven, but not Death at Greenway. This one’s character all the way, and it’s masterful. You get the nurses, the staff, the neighbors, the atmosphere, the house, the PTSD, and they all move the story. Aside from Bridget and her nursing colleague, I single out the local doctor, who’s too handsome by half and sensitive to feelings but somehow off, and an artist living on the property who’s got a battleship-sized sense of entitlement.

Rader-Day peels back layer upon layer of mystery, misunderstanding, and “no — and furthermore.” If the narrative proceeds more gradually than in other mysteries — the dead body, for instance, doesn’t show up until page 115 – the tension nevertheless keeps you riveted.

How? The author shows you Bridget beneath the skin and the fear, isolation, and resentment everyone breathes with each inhalation, which marks them and makes for potent drama. I admire that kind of storytelling, which doesn’t need a man with a gun to raise the stakes. This narrative may seem “quiet” for a mystery, to use a publishing buzzword that no two people define the same way. Gentle reader, don’t be deterred.

I’ve also never read as gripping or accurate a description of post-traumatic stress, unless it was in Daniel Mason’s fine novel, The Winter Soldier — and he’s a psychiatrist. Moreover, Rader-Day captures the underside of Britain’s so-called finest hour, portraying less-than-heroic behaviors, reminiscent of Lissa Evans’s novels, though without the irony or humor. Here in Devon, they’re playing for keeps.

For those who like Agatha Christie — I don’t particularly — the setting will appeal as well. And just in case you’re thinking from what I’ve said that the mystery must take second place to the characterization and somehow muddle its way through, let me assure you that the plot goes through as many twists and turns as the seaside Devon roadways.

Death at Greenway is a fine mystery and a brilliant re-creation of the British home front, worth your time in both respects.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.