At times, I read in phases. Recently I went through an urban fantasy phase; now and then I’ll be stuck in a gaslight phase and wind up reading all of Anne Perry again. (Or avoiding Anne Perry in search of something new.) For a little while (as long as I could find books to fit it), thanks to James R. Benn, I was in a WWII phase. A Mortal Terror was an excellent murder mystery set in the midst of battle in Italy in 1943; Two O’Clock, Eastern Wartime, by John Dunning, was set in 1944 in New Jersey. When I finished that, after spending a few minutes marveling that there have been so few (if any -?) fantasies set in WWII – what could be more fun to write than a pack of werewolves on the front lines, or a wizard supporting the resistance? – and in fact that I have so little fiction at all set during WWII, I remembered receiving The War Against Miss Winter. I’m fairly certain this was featured on the Stop You’re Killing Me site, and that on having a credit available on paperbackswap I took a chance on it based on the SYKM review. 1943’s WWII homefront, theatre, murder – sounded good.
It wasn’t good. It was very good. It was so much more fun than I expected. I, in case I haven’t been clear, really enjoyed it.
It took a minute. I had my doubts about an aspiring actress working as the secretary in a private eye’s office – that strays into the world of the ludicrous – but by the time she found her boss, Sam McCain, hanged in his office I was hooked. The world-building, or world-recreation, feels thorough and genuine: Rosie’s world is one very much at war, and the effects of that are everywhere. There has to have been a tremendous amount of painstaking research behind this – it shows, in every good way. The setting is everything I could have wanted – the Home Front of the War is utilized to the fullest.
Rosie’s best friend Jayne reminded me of Stacy from Drop Dead Diva – all the appearance of being the beautiful dumb blonde and very little of the reality. Jayne broke my heart, made me scared for her, and was generally a terrific friend and terrific character. Rosie herself is flawed, and knows it; she’s tough, as a girl has to be chasing a dream in New York in any era – but maybe a little too tough. She’s not willing to let anything get through to her, and that takes in the good as well as the bad. The book is told in the first-person, and I don’t think the line Rosie walks is easy to pull off in that voice – it’s great work.
I kept expecting each of the men in the story to sweep Rosie off her feet and take her mind off Jack, the actor she had been seeing who abruptly went off to war, who left without saying goodbye. My money was on Al the bodyguard; I think most stories would have painted him as the initial impression he gives – a mob thug – and left the portrait there, with no depth at all. But he’s kind of awesome too. In fact, nobody is simply what he (or she) first appears; there are first impressions, then second impressions, then the learned reality, and always room for surprises. Kathryn Miller Haines plays clichés like cheap violins (to coin a cliché). Oh, well, there’s the girl who appears to be a bitch and really is; and that’s wonderful too, because I kept expecting it to take a conventional turn and reveal her to have a heart of gold. Nope: she’s a bitch. With some reasons, and occasional softer moments, but the latter are usually a trap: she’s still a bitch.
The plot didn’t go as might have been expected either. The mystery tangles around the mob and the theatre and extramarital affairs, and Rosie works her way through it while understudying in a true stinker of an avant-garde show. She never quite pushes the boundaries of what is believable of a young woman of her place and time and abilities – and she has a lot of help along the way. It’s a lovely book, and a solid, hopeful start to a series.