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"A delightful immersion in the period and personalities, with that touch of depth that transforms a good series to a great one." Laurie R. King
First comes love, then comes murder.
In a London slowly recovering from World War II, two very different women join forces to launch a business venture in the heart of MayfairThe Right Sort Marriage Bureau. Miss Iris Sparks, quick-witted and impulsive, and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, practical and widowed with a young son, are determined to achieve some independence and do some good in a rapidly changing world.
But the promising start to their marriage bureau is threatened when their newest client, Tillie La Salle, is found murdered and the man arrested for the crime is the prospective husband they matched her with. While the police are convinced they have their man, Miss Sparks and Mrs. Bainbridge are not. To clear his nameand to rescue their fledging operation’s reputationSparks and Bainbridge decide to investigate on their own, using the skills and contacts they’ve each acquired through life and their individual adventures during the recent war.
Little do they know that this will put their very lives at risk.
About the Author
ALLISON MONTCLAIR grew up devouring hand-me-down Agatha Christie paperbacks and James Bond movies. As a result of this deplorable upbringing, Montclair became addicted to tales of crime, intrigue, and espionage. She now spends her spare time poking through the corners, nooks, and crannies of history, searching for the odd mysterious bits and transforming them into novels of her own. The Right Sort of Man is her debut novel.
Read an Excerpt
Tillie climbed the stairs from the Bond Street Station out to Davies Street, blinking in the afternoon light. She had directions, but the directions were from Oxford Street, and she didn't know whether that was to the right or left. She felt like the overwhelmed child that she had been the first and last time she had come to Mayfair, when her dad took her on a special shopping expedition after a rare successful day at the track. She dragged him into shop after shop, looking at all of the clothes, the toys, the sweets, her voice a non-stop series of squeaks and squeals while her dad beamed at the happiness he had produced all because the favourite in the fifth race at Kempton Park had snapped a foreleg and the long shot managed to skirt the subsequent pileup of horses and jockeys and push its nose past the other survivors. Two horses were put down after that race, and three jockeys went to hospital, but Dad came out of it forty quid ahead, so tragedy be damned.
She wasn't even certain what he had bought her that day. Some pretty printed dress, she thought. Probably from Dickins and Jones. One that she outgrew within months, because Dad would never think of buying a size or two up, but that day was still the best of her life. So far.
Dickins and Jones was bombed during the Blitz. She read about it the morning after it happened, thinking about being there with Dad back in —'28? '29? She cried when she read about it, cried like she was a little girl again, she who had never shed a tear when friends and family were lost. It was as if the Germans had attacked her best memory.
There it was, on the left. Oxford Street! She reached into her handbag and pulled out the scrap of paper with her directions.
It was June, 1946. The war was over, and Tillie La Salle had come back to Mayfair to shop.
Only this time, she was shopping for a husband.
A right, two blocks, and another right brought her to her destination. She gawked when she saw it. It wasn't the appearance of the building itself that caused her astonishment. It was very much an ordinary, turn-of-the-century structure with bricks of a dull, almost muddy red, four storeys with not much in the way of falderal in the edging of the windows or the parapets. But it was the only building still standing on this particular block. On both sides, piles of rubble and a few ruined walls lay where similar buildings once stood, bracing their surviving neighbour. To the right, a solitary bulldozer was scooping up shattered pieces of brick, concrete, and wood and unceremoniously depositing them into a waiting lorry.
She walked past, wondering which phase of the German air assault had devastated this particular block, and what quirk of Fate had missed leveling the very building containing the goal of her journey.
The driver of the lorry was leaning against the cab. He caught sight of her, then took off his twill cap and waved.
"'Allo, gorgeous!" he shouted. "Give a working man a smile!"
"You don't look like you're working at the moment," she replied.
"They also serve who stand and wait," he said. "Fancy a cuppa?"
"Some other time," she said.
"Name's Frank," he said, giving an exaggerated bow. "I'm here all week."
"Save some love for the wife," she advised him.
He laughed and replaced his cap, his wedding ring prominent.
She sighed and continued to the building. On the front by the entry was a small collection of signs advertising the occupants. Amidst a few drab placards for accounting and typing services was a cheerful light green one with large hand-painted yellow letters reading, THE RIGHT SORT MARRIAGE BUREAU. MISS IRIS SPARKS AND MRS. GWENDOLYN BAINBRIDGE, PROPRIETORS.
Tillie hesitated, then thought how easily she had just been accosted in the street by a married man.
"No faint heart, Tillie," she admonished herself. "This is why you came."
She took a deep breath, then walked through the door.
There was no reception, merely a cramped hallway with a daunting set of stairs to the right and a narrow passageway directly ahead that vanished into darkness with alarming rapidity. An elderly, unshaven man in dingy overalls was mopping the floor. She ignored him and turned her attention to the building directory.
"If you're looking for a husband, they're on the top," called the custodian, his sporadic yellow teeth flashing in what she assumed he meant to be a friendly smile.
"I see that," replied Tillie, spotting a smaller version of the green placard. "Thanks. Don't you think there ought to be more light down here?"
"No point," said the custodian. "It's all vacant, innit?"
She took the stairs, initially at a nervous trot to get away from the gloom of the ground floor and the vaguely menacing demeanour of the custodian. By the time she reached the top, her pace had slowed considerably.
This hallway was brightly lit, however, and in the middle of it, she saw yet another green sign proclaiming her journey's end. She paused to catch her breath, then walked up and rapped on the door.
The woman who opened it was her height, a brunette maybe six or seven years past Tillie's twenty-two. She gave her a quick, inquisitive look, then smiled.
"Miss La Salle, is it? Come in, come in."
Tillie found herself ushered in and plopped onto a wooden chair that creaked ominously. There were two desks in front of her on either side of a single window. They looked like they themselves had served during the war, perhaps seeing combat in some skirmish against German furniture, and now sat battered but unbowed, the one on the left jammed against the wall for partial support, a book stuffed under one leg which was noticeably shorter than the others.
The room itself was painted the same soothing light green as the placards. On the wall to the right hung photographs of happy couples at their weddings, with announcements from the Guardian and the Evening Standard taped to their frames. There was an ancient filing cabinet in the corner that could have told tales from previous wars to the two desks.
"How do you do, how do you do?" rattled off the woman. "I'm Iris Sparks; call me Sparks, everyone does. So nice to meet you, and you're perfectly on time. You made it up the steps, hurrah! The first hurdle on the path towards happiness is those steps. They've been wonderfully firming for my legs, I must say. I've lost eight pounds since we started up. This is Mrs. Bainbridge, my partner."
From behind the desk on the left, a very tall woman rose gracefully and came over to shake her hand.
"How do you do, Miss La Salle?" she said.
Tillie tried not to gape. Mrs. Bainbridge was elegant, blond, and wearing an impeccably tailored silk suit that must have been sealed in a cedarwood closet for the duration of the war to have been resurrected so perfectly. The woman had a patrician air that was completely out of place in this small, solitary office, yet seemed wholly at ease in spite of it. She could have stepped from the pages of the Tatler, or been the slumming aristocratic sidekick in a Jessie Matthews musical, lacking only the art deco sets for the appropriate backdrop.
Sparks noticed the young woman's attempts not to stare and grinned.
"Impressive, isn't she?" she commented. "Don't worry, she's one of us."
"I'm sorry," stammered Tillie. "I didn't mean to be rude."
"Not at all," Mrs. Bainbridge reassured her as she resumed her seat.
"Now, you are looking for a husband."
"That's right," said Tillie.
"Then you've come to the right place," said Sparks, sitting on the edge of her desk and picking up a pair of typed forms. "Business first. Before we ask you a single question, we want you to know what you are committing to, and more important, what services we provide. We are a marriage bureau, one of two such in London, licensed to arrange meetings between eligible single people. For an initial fee of five pounds, you receive our unwavering efforts to find you a suitable husband. We currently have eighty-three single men on file, as well as ninety-four women, all of whom have been subjected to questioning by Mrs. Bainbridge and myself —"
"Which is rigorous," interjected Mrs. Bainbridge.
"As you will see for yourself," continued Sparks. "We cannot, of course, guarantee that marriage will result from this."
"Or that happiness will result from marriage," added Mrs. Bainbridge. "That would be up to you."
"But we've already had seven weddings result from our efforts in the three months since we've opened," said Sparks.
"Seven!" exclaimed Tillie. "In only three months? Such short engagements!"
"The war is over, and people want to start normal life up again in a hurry," said Mrs. Bainbridge. "And there has been so much loss and devastation —"
"Oh, yes," said Tillie. "It's amazing this building's still up."
"Incendiaries to the left of us, doodlebug to the right," said Sparks. "Yet here it is, and here we are."
"It's why we chose this location," said Mrs. Bainbridge. "Something about it says hope, don't you think?"
"It does," agreed Tillie. "I hope there's some hope left for me."
"For five pounds, there will be," said Sparks. "Now, there's one more part of the contract, and this is the catch. Should you end up marrying a man who you met through our efforts, then each of you will pay us a — call it an achievement fee."
"Twenty quid?" exclaimed Tillie.
"Each," said Sparks.
"That's an awful lot," said Tillie.
"But don't you see, that's the incentive for us to work so hard on your behalf," said Mrs. Bainbridge. "It will be in all of our best interests to find you the right sort of man."
"Moment of truth, Miss La Salle," said Sparks, holding up the papers in her hand. "Five pounds and a signature, and we shall commence your quest for matrimony. Are you with us?"
"Well," said Tillie, considering. "It can't be any worse than what I've been going through."
"It will be so much better," said Mrs. Bainbridge confidently.
"Right," said Tillie, opening her handbag.
She counted out five pounds and handed them to Sparks.
"Bravo," said Sparks. "Come sign your contracts. There's one for you, one for our files."
She handed her a pen and vacated the desk so that Tillie could sign. Tillie looked over the contract carefully.
"One question," she said. "How do I know you don't grab the best boys for yourselves?"
"We have a firm policy of never dating clients," said Sparks. "We even put that in the contract. Item seven."
"You really did," marveled Tillie. "It seems like you thought of everything."
She signed them both, then handed them and the pen to Sparks.
"Well done," said Sparks, sitting behind her desk and taking out a steno pad. "Now, let's find out more about you. We have your name, and you gave me your address when you phoned for the appointment. Ratcliffe Cross Street. That's in Shadwell, yes?"
"Shadwell born, Shadwell raised, and I work there as well," said Tillie.
"You like it there, do you?" asked Sparks.
"I want to get out of there as soon and as fast as I can," said Tillie fervently. "I will settle for a lesser man if he lives far from Shadwell. Find me a farmer up north, and I'll learn to herd ducks with a willing heart."
"I don't think we have any duck-herding farmers at the moment," said Sparks.
"I'll take any spare dukes or millionaires you have lying about, then," said Tillie.
"I'm afraid we're fresh out," said Mrs. Bainbridge, smiling.
"Let's start with the basics," continued Sparks. "Religion?"
"Church of England," said Tillie.
"Looking for the same?"
"I suppose. I don't go enough. I wouldn't mind Catholic, if he's Continental and a gentleman."
"So, French, Italian ...?"
"I've got some French in me."
"We suspected as much from the name," said Mrs. Bainbridge.
"Yeah, that's a dead giveaway," said Tillie. "A couple of Free French soldiers tried chatting me up, but I don't speak a word of it. Didn't stop them from trying, though, did it?"
"So, Catholic acceptable," said Sparks, writing it down.
"But not Irish," added Tillie hastily.
"But not Irish," repeated Sparks.
"I mean, I don't want you to think —"
"My dear, we do not judge," said Mrs. Bainbridge. "Your preferences are respected here."
"Right," said Sparks. "Education."
"In school until I was fourteen. Wasn't good at it, and my family needed me to work, so I quit and got a job."
"And you're currently working in Shadwell."
"Yes. At a dress shop."
"Do you sew, then?" asked Mrs. Bainbridge. "Make alterations and such?"
"We have a tailor," said Tillie. "He's the owner and does all that. I can help out in a pinch, but mostly I'm the shopgirl. I show the ladies the styles, make recommendations, keep the books."
"You're like us, only with dresses," commented Sparks.
"Although we don't offer alterations," said Mrs. Bainbridge. "Perhaps we should."
Tillie giggled at the idea, and she and Mrs. Bainbridge began trading suggestions that quickly became ridiculous. Iris took the opportunity to jot down a quick assessment of their new client.
Certainly a pretty girl, she thought. Bright-eyed, naturally perky when she smiled, good teeth when she laughed, although she was missing one on the top left. Iris wondered what circumstances led to that blow to the mouth. Miss La Salle knew how to wear makeup to good effect, just the right amount of powder and rouge without being garish or common. Nice raspberry red lipstick. And her clothes — the jacket was a lovely light blue cloth bolero with an abundance of white trim; her collar was of a cheerful polka-dotted pattern; her kiltie was a riot of pleats, stopping below the knee, with a good set of taupe nylons clinging to a good set of gams. And sensible shoes, as a shopgirl must have.
"Now, as to the type of man you are looking for," Sparks said. "You mentioned wanting to abandon Shadwell. How far would you be willing to go?"
"How far can you send me?"
"Australia," said Sparks.
"Australia?" exclaimed Tillie.
"India. Burma. Africa ..."
"We have several clients who were here for the duration of the war, and wish to return home, a blushing bride by their side," added Mrs. Bainbridge.
"Oh," said Tillie. "I never even thought ... I mean, my Mum and Dad are still here. If anything happened to them ..."
"Then you'd want to be able to see them quickly," finished Mrs. Bainbridge. "We understand entirely. Family is important."
"To some," said Sparks. "Age?"
"Not, you know, doddering about. Fit. Able. I'm not a nursemaid, am I?"
"Certainly not," agreed Mrs. Bainbridge. "Any limit?"
"I suppose forty? Fortyish?"
"Ish," muttered Sparks, writing it down.
"Now, this one is somewhat delicate," said Mrs. Bainbridge. "Most of our bachelors served our country. Not all of them emerged unscathed. We have men who lost limbs ..."
"Oh, dear," said Tillie.
"We have a lovely gentleman who was badly burned," said Sparks. "It's startling when you first meet him, but within minutes of speaking to him, you completely forget about it."
"So, our question is would you consider one of these wounded or disfigured heroes?" asked Mrs. Bainbridge.
"I know that I'm supposed to say yes, of course," said Tillie. "That I would do anything for the lads. But I'm the one who would have to live with them forever, aren't I?"
"You are," said Sparks.
"I'd like, you know, I'd like a bit of something to look at while I'm doing the wifely duty," said Tillie. "It's what they want from me, so why shouldn't I be the same?"
"You're saying that looks are important," said Mrs. Bainbridge.
"I suppose they shouldn't be," said Tillie. "But I've had men chasing after me since I was too young, and it had nothing to do with my personality."
"Wouldn't you rather be wanted for your personality?" asked Mrs. Bainbridge.
"Yeah, I would," said Tillie. "It's why I came here, isn't it? And I know that I just said I want a man who looks all right, so bad on me for being confusing. He doesn't have to be a heartstopper. I just want something more than the bare minimum. And if he's missing a leg, he won't even be that."
"We'll see what we can do," said Mrs. Bainbridge. "Any other physical preferences?"
"All of his hair still on his head," said Tillie promptly.
"Noted," said Sparks. "Height?"
"Be hard to find one shorter than me," said Tillie.
"Oh, no, it isn't," said Sparks. "We have several."
"Well, save them for the girls who like short men," said Tillie.
"Right," said Sparks. "If they run to fat ..."
"We all will eventually," said Tillie. "With luck and no rationing. I don't mind a bit extra around the waist."
"Never had time or money for any," said Tillie.
"Anything you don't want in a gentleman?"
"No gambling. No drinkers."
"Smokers?" asked Sparks.
"As long as he shares," she said, grinning. "Ciggies are my secret vice."
"Right, that should give us enough of an idea to pair you up with someone," said Sparks.
"How long will it take?" asked Tillie.
"We'll be in touch with a suitable candidate by this afternoon's post," said Mrs. Bainbridge. "You should be hearing within two to three days."
"That quick?" exclaimed Tillie. "I won't even have time to get my hair done."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Right Sort of Man"
Copyright © 2019 Allison Montclair.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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