Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys (2018)

A few years after the end of the War, Eve Forrester is living a dull, monotonous life with with her husband Clifford.  Her mother engineered the marriage  after Eve  lost her fiance, Archie, in the war and tells her that she should be grateful, that she is lucky to have a husband and a home of her own. Eve  tries but she can’t quite manage it, because Clifford disregards her and is quite unresponsive to her efforts to be a good wife and to make a nice home for him.

One unexpected letter changes everything.

That letter comes from a solicitor in Cannes on the French Riviera and it tells Eve that Guy Lester has just died and he has left Eve a bequest that she must visit him to claim. Eve has no idea who Mr Lester was. Clifford is too busy to go, he doesn’t approve of married women travelling without their husbands; but as he likes the idea of a legacy,  and as all her expenses will be paid, he agrees that Eve may go.

And so begins the story of Eve’s journey and her time in the South of France – a lovely period piece, threaded with mystery and intrigue.

She makes friends on the train, but the Lester family are less than pleased to discover that a complete stranger has inherited a quarter share of Guy’s family home, the Villa La Perle; and they have no more idea why than she does. Clifford is also unhappy when he learns that his wife will need to stay at the villa to deal with all of the necessary formalities and legalities.

Soon Eve finds herself mixing not just with Lester’s suspicious family, but with film stars, writers and artists, and a whole host of others. It’s a world away from the one Eve has left behind and it helps her to blossom in the warmth of the sun and to find the confidence to think and act for herself.

It was all lovely to see.

Eve realises she must uncover the history that brought her to the South of France; and that is when accidents began to happen and she begins to wonder if somebody wants her out of the way …

I was captivated from the first page to the last.

I was very taken with a wonderfully diverse characters. Every one was vividly drawn, and as the story progressed I realised that everyone of them had depth and complexity . It has to be said that some of them were not very nice people, but there were enough that were – who cared and would be good friends to Eve – to bring warmth of the story.

I felt the warmth of the sun too, and Eve’s life in her new world is so well drawn that I might have been beside her, seeing the same places and the same people, asking the same questions. Some of the answers that she uncovered made my heart lift and some of them made my heart fall. Some of them I foresaw, and some of them came as complete surprises.

The period is beautifully evoked, and the consequences of war in both countries are drawn out. England is austere and rationing is still in force while the south of France is warm and colourful, but still haunted by the ghosts of the Nazi occupation. The author has clearly thought about this and about how to use it into her story, and she has used it very well.

The characterisation of Eve was lovely, and watching her grow from a downtrodden housewife to a woman ready to set her own course in life was one of my favourite things about this book. I also appreciated the stories of other women living with the consequences of war. There was one who was coming to terms with the loss of one of her sons, there was another who Eve could see was making the same mistake that she had – marrying the wrong man because another one might not come along ….

Rachel Rhys deployed her whole cast of characters very effectively, she gave her story many different aspects, she caught her period and her settings beautifully, and she spun her slow-burning mystery story around all of that so cleverly.

There were times when I would have liked a little more subtlety, and there were characters and storylines that I would have like to have had a little more or a little less time and attention.

Those are minor points though.

The resolution of the story was exactly right; everything that needed an explanation had one, and the book as a whole worked very well indeed.

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys (2017)

Set in 1939, not long before the outbreak of the second World War, ‘A Dangerous Crossing’ follows young Lily Shepherd as leaves her much loved family and a past she would rather forget behind her to sail towards  a new life in Australia.

She is travelling on a cruise liner, the ‘Orontes’, thanks to an assisted passage scheme, paid for by the Government to encourage people to settle in Australia. Lily had been a domestic servant, and she had been told that when that when she reached Sydney she would have no trouble finding a good job, as good servants were in short supply and valued very highly indeed.

This story of Lily’s month long-voyage is a lovely period piece and a fascinating travelogue; threaded with mystery and intrigue.

She travels in tourist class with other young women who are travelling for similar reasons, under the watchful eye of a chaperone; but Lily finds herself mixing with a much wider social circle in the dining room. She forms a friendship the quiet and charming Edward Fletcher and his protective elder sister, Helena; and she is captivated by a rich, glamorous, hedonistic couple – Max and Eliza Campbell – who come down from first class because they feel unwelcome there.

Less happily, Lily catches they eye of the loud and fascist George; and her cabin-mate Ida, a terribly intense young woman looks on disapprovingly.

At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers have little idea what is happening back at home. They know that with Germany could be close; some hope for the best but many fear the worst.

There are Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians on board; some – and most vociferously, George –  regard those people as the enemy. Lily befriends a young Jewish woman, who shares her fears for the family she had to leave behind, and tells Lily of some of the terrible things that are already happening in Europe.

As time passes secrets unravel and tensions grow,

Not everyone who sailed from England will survive the voyage.

I was hooked from the first page to the last.

The first chapter told me that someone had been arrested and led from the ship in handcuffs when it docked in Sydney, and I had to keep reading to find out why and to find out who it was, but I found many more reasons like that to keep turning the pages.

‘A Dangerous Crossing’ is a wonderful character study of people with very different backgrounds, who would not usually mix, but were drawn together in the close confines of the ship. It a self-contained world, where, for the five weeks of the voyage, the usual rules did not apply.

Rachel Rhys evokes the period, and a world on the brink of change, quite beautifully. Life aboard ship –  the daily routine and social events – is so vividly drawn,  and the accounts of excursions to places like Gibraltar, Naples, Egypt, Yemen and Ceylon felt so real that I really felt I was there, travelling right across the world.

I was travelling with people I knew, but people that I knew had secrets.

Lily was a wonderful companion, Eliza and Max were an extraordinary couple, and Edward and Helena were intriguing. As the voyage continued I learned more and more about them all; and I realised that they all had such depth and complexity. Some of that revelations made my heart lift and some of them made my heart fall. Some of them I foresaw, and some of them came as complete surprises.

The final twist, that led to the walk in handcuffs in the first chapter, was the most remarkable of all.

Rachel Rhys deployed he cast of characters very effectively, she gave her story many different aspects of her story, she caught the changing times beautifully, and she wove her plot very cleverly.

I felt so wonderfully close to it all.

I’d call this book commercial fiction done very well.

There were times when I would have liked a little more subtlety, and I thought that the epilogue was more elaborate than it needed to be; but the book as a whole works.