Written by Rhys Bowen
Take one part Downton Abbey, one part The Imitation Game, add a sprinkle of any Dick Frances novel, and you’ve got In Farleigh Field. If you don’t know one of more of these references, here’s another way of explaining this. In Farleigh Field combines the deprivations experienced by proper British society in World War II with an old-school spy novel. And it becomes more than the sum of its parts.
When a parachutist is found dead in Farleigh Field after the start of World War II, suspicions run rampant. Was he a member of the unit stationed so inconveniently at Farleigh (leaving Lord Westerham and his family to a single wing of the home), or is he a German spy? Ben Cresswell, son of the local vicar and member of MI5, is sent to solve the mystery.
This book is a restrained adventure. The feel, language, and pacing feels so very British. You really feel like you are living in that time. This is partially do to the language and the characters, and partially due to Bowen’s descriptions of places. At no time do you get bogged down by endless descriptions of the particular shade of green of a clover in a field. Instead, Bowen chooses the exact right word, and no more, to make you understand what she wants you to understand.
I also really loved the characters. While I can always appreciate perfect characters, or realistically flawed characters, these characters were simply real for their time. Ben was smart and driven and well aware of his circumstances. Jeremy is dashing and overprivileged and unapologetic about it. Pamela is smart and, while aware of society’s restrictions, pushes against the boundaries formed around women at the time. Two of my favorite characters were Pamela’s father and youngest sister. Like all of the supporting characters, these two could have been characatures, but instead were full and lively. The youngest sister in particular was endearing. She reminded me so much of Flavia from Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
The story itself was tight and surprising. Bowne did not muck around with plot twist after plot twist (there were no “gotcha!” moments). But at the same time, the story was unpredictable. I was engaged up to the very end. I was also impressed that she resisted the urge to cram the entire finish into a few pages. I felt that she spent the appropriate amount of time at the end and wrapped things up neatly.
It is difficult to find much to say that is not complimentary about this book, but there were two things that I identified.
The first minor issue with this book was the characterizations. While Bowen did a nice job of rounding out characters, these characters were based on pretty basic character types. You had the “Lord of the Manor”, the “precocious youngest child”, the “spoiled eldest son”, the “Vicar’s son”, and so on. Because she filled them out well, it was easy to forgive, but they were still stereotypical characters.
The other issue I had was the coincidence that all of the events involved three people (and their families) who knew each other from childhood. It seemed a bit pat. That said, it was minor, back of the mind issue. And I can think of a hundred coincidences that actually happened that make me think this is nitpicking. And it truly is nitpicking. Bowen is skillful enough that none of the “not-so-good” really occurs to you until you are asked what you thought about the book.
What fun this book was to read! I kind of feel like I gave my thoughts away in the first paragraph of my review. But it really was a very good book. It didn’t break my “Top Books” list, but there was very little wrong with this. It sent you back to a time when the world changed. You felt the ebbing of the old titled families, the grit of the British people, and the adventure of the mystery that needed solving.
In Farleigh Field was a mystery of the first class. I followed the clues and made suppositions and though I solved it time and again. Bowen could well be our modern-day Agatha Christie.