This wartime murder-mystery takes place on an old-fashioned, home counties, English country estate – where centuries of tradition are being overturned by the conflict on the Continent. The unconventional heroine, Bunch Courtney, refuses to believe that her childhood sweetheart might have committed suicide. But if he didn’t kill himself, then who is responsible for his death on the snowy Sussex Downs? Bunch must outwit the outdated convictions of the stuffy establishment and the landed gentry, to confront a conspiracy of killers and uncover the truth…
Winter Downs delivers a traditional whodunit wrapped in historical nostalgia. Author Jan Edwards explores what life might have been like for the Land Girls who farmed the fields while the men fought overseas. The long-established routines and rituals of rural life are radically disrupted by rationing and air raids, billeted soldiers and brash young men. But it isn’t all rose-tinted retrospective: Winter Downs also shows the seedier side of the war – when spivs weren’t lovable rascals so much as cut-throat thieves who’d rapidly resort to violence if interrupted while butchering stolen sheep. Or worse.
The story itself presents plenty of unpredictable puzzles as Bunch challenges the expectations of her upper-class upbringing. In many ways she reminded me of a grown-up George from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, while her sister, Dodo, is a dead ringer for an adult version of Anne. In fact, the whole book almost feels like ‘what the Famous Five did next’. Bunch can’t do much to help win the war, but she is determined to see that her old friend’s murder doesn’t go unpunished. She’s the kind of practical, horse-riding gel typically described as ‘feisty’, so when the police inspector dismisses her doubts as those of a silly girl, Bunch plunges into the investigation.
The whole book is imbued with the ambience of the area but it’s a chilly interpretation of the Sussex countryside, isolated in the grip of an icy winter and unsettled by uncertainty. The fate of Europe hangs in the balance while centuries of class structure and gender stereotypes fray at the seams. Jan Edwards hints at the latter while keeping the plot focused on the twists and turns – and she writes crisp, engaging prose which is easy to enjoy.
You can simply read Winter Downs as a ripping yarn, almost cosy crime, or look a little deeper into the social subtext of the story. It’s ideal for anyone who enjoys Agatha Christie’s mysteries or golden-age detective fiction. The cover art brilliantly depicts the atmosphere of the novel; blue birds over the white cliffs, indeed. For me, it was all a little bit conventional, strait-laced and good-natured – but I suspect that it’ll be immensely satisfying to anyone who enjoys Downton Abbey, Poldark and the like.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Winter Downs by Jan Edwards is available in ebook and paperback