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A Reluctant Femme Fatale In Postwar London

Nov 9, 2009

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Any atmospheric mystery set in 1940s London needs a femme fatale, a woman so desperate to know who killed her husband (or to have her husband killed) that she'll do anything — "Anything," she coos, leaning forward just enough to offer a glimpse down her top — if you can help.

Regine, the heroine of Elizabeth Wilson's War Damage, could easily be a femme fatale if she'd just embrace the role. She may lack the conscious cruelty, but she does have the requisite desperation. Her dearest friend, Freddie Buckingham, has been murdered, and if the tabloids — spurred on by his salacious sexual habits — start to delve into his life, they might stumble upon dark truths about her and her friends.

Regine is a woman who gets what she wants, despite living in the postwar "years of austerity," when everything from food to clothing is rationed. Possessed of charm, money and a familiarity with the black market that she picked up in Shanghai, she uses her feminine wiles to persuade Detective Murray to dedicate himself to the case as if it were the murder of his own brother. Her own past is tightly tied in with Freddie's — her years of associations with men on the run from the law, the truth behind the careful lies she constructed about her family history — and any delving into the gossip of his lifestyle is sure to damage her reputation. She has a respectable life in London now, with the perfect (but secretly perverted) husband, the part-time job in publishing, the parties everyone from world-famous dancers to high-level politicians attend.

In Regine, writer Wilson has created a character we understand and sympathize with, yet whom we still hope a little bit will be humbled. Regine easily manipulates men but is ambivalent about the power she has over them. She's resourceful enough to have crawled her way from low beginnings to London's high society, but despite being bored by it all, she's terrified of a fall from grace.

Wilson was a researcher before she published her first mystery, Twilight Hour, in 2007. As a novelist, she exploits this talent — War Damage is thick with detail — but never lets the research overrun the plot. From the language her characters speak to the jewelry they wear, everything feels perfectly authentic, as if the book had been written during the time in which it is set. With one exception: Where writers from the 1940s may have used innuendo to explore homosexuality and kinky sex, Wilson goes directly at it. The first page has two schoolboys fooling around on a sofa, and things just get dirtier from there. It may have been the age of austerity in the markets, but not in the bedroom.

Salacious, yes. But when was that ever a bad thing?

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