A jaded spy and a shell shocked country doctor team up to solve a murder in postwar England.
James Sommers returned from the war with his nerves in tatters. All he wants is to retreat to the quiet village of his childhood and enjoy the boring, predictable life of a country doctor. The last thing in the world he needs is a handsome stranger who seems to be mixed up with the first violent death the village has seen in years. It certainly doesn’t help that this stranger is the first person James has wanted to touch since before the war.
The war may be over for the rest of the world, but Leo Page is still busy doing the dirty work for one of the more disreputable branches of the intelligence service. When his boss orders him to cover up a murder, Leo isn’t expecting to be sent to a sleepy village. After a week of helping old ladies wind balls of yarn and flirting with a handsome doctor, Leo is in danger of forgetting what he really is and why he’s there. He’s in danger of feeling things he has no business feeling. A person who burns his identity after every job can’t set down roots.
As he starts to untangle the mess of secrets and lies that lurk behind the lace curtains of even the most peaceful-seeming of villages, Leo realizes that the truths he’s about to uncover will affect his future and those of the man he’s growing to care about.
Cat Sebastian has become known for her queer historical romances set in the nineteenth century, so Hither, Page is a bit of a departure in that it is set in Post-WW2 England. The sleepy Cotswold village of Wychcomb St. Mary is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else, is in each other’s business, and gossip abounds, but also where people pull together and look out for one another in times of trouble. Hither, Page is billed as the first in the Page & Sommers series, and is a cosy mystery wherein a country doctor traumatised by war and a world-weary, rootless spy team up to work out who is responsible for a couple of murders.
Leo Page, a spy working for one of the more disreputable branches of the intelligence services is an orphan who was recruited more than a decade earlier by British Intelligence and has been getting his hands dirty on their behalf ever since. He has no family, no friends to speak of – those just aren’t compatible with the sort of life he leads – but when he’s sent to the village of Wychcomb St. Mary, ostensibly to look into the death of a woman who worked for a former army officer suspected of selling military secrets, he begins to find his priorities shifting, regardless of whether he wants them to or not.
Doctor James Sommers grew up in Wychcomb and returned there after the war, hoping to find refuge from the memories of the devastating memories that continue to haunt him. His PTSD can hit unexpectedly, but for the most part he’s getting by, tending to the villagers and making a home among them, but the news of the death of one of their own disturbs him more than he cares to admit. After everything he’s seen and done, all he wants is a settled, orderly life, one where he’d take any and every reminder that people were capable of something other than reducing one another to piles of meat.
The mystery in the book is well done and moves at a good pace, but really, it’s secondary to the characters, a motley crew of quirky, well-rounded individuals who have been affected by the war in some way, from Marston a former patient of James’, who now lives in an old gamekeeper’s cottage and keeps himself to himself to the Misses Pickering and Delacourt, a pair of elderly spinsters who live on the outskirts of the village, to the vicar and his permanently harried wife, and the former evacuee Wendy, who was sent to the village to wait out the war but has never returned home.
Mildred Hoggatt was found dead following a dinner party at Wych Hall, home of Colonel Bertram Armstrong. She was drugged, and then pushed down a flight of stairs, and while she was a bit of a busybody, there seems to be no real motive for her murder. Leo arrives in time to attend her funeral – and there notices the local doctor, who seems familiar. Unusually, Leo is working using his own name, but has taken on the persona of an office worker snatching a few days holiday in the area to study the local church architecture. His easy manner and good humour, together with the fact that many of the locals are just dying to share their theories about Mildred’s death with someone new, mean it doesn’t take him long to ingratiate himself and get people talking.
James recognises Leo – although he’s damn sure that wasn’t his name back then – from a night in France in 1944 when he was suddenly called away to patch up a man dressed as a member of the French Resistance. James realises immediately that the other man must be some sort of government agent who has come to Wychcomb to look into more than the death of a mere charwoman, but he has absolutely no desire to become involved. He resents the intrusion of more death and devastation into the quiet life he craves, but when it emerges that Mildred left Wendy a large sum of money, and that it could lead to Wendy being the prime suspect in the murder, he’s compelled to act. He can’t let an innocent – if rather eccentric – girl be wrongly accused, so he decides to help Page, even though it goes against his inclination and better judgement.
The relationship between the two men is nicely developed and carries equal weight (as the mystery) in the story. There’s an instant spark of attraction between them, but even though it doesn’t take either of them long to discern where the other’s preferences lay – and Leo doesn’t waste any time in flirting with James – this is 1946 and they still have to be careful. And although James is grateful to still be able to feel the stirrings of attraction, he is reluctant to become involved with a man for whom deception and betrayal are a way of life.
Both James and Leo are well-developed characters and I liked them individually and as a couple. James is a lovely man – quiet, considerate and compassionate – but he’s the first to acknowledge that he’s not quite right in the head, and wonders if he’ll ever be able to leave his demons behind him. By contrast, Leo is outgoing and garrulous, but it’s all an act. He’s spent so long pretending to be whoever he had to be for whatever job he was assigned that he doesn’t know who Leo Page really is. But for the first time in his life, he’s starting to want to find out – to find out what it’s like to have friends, to belong somewhere, with someone – and to realise that he’s been missing out on so many of life’s simple pleasures.
I did think that the romance progressed a tad quickly – especially as this is going to be a series – but on the other hand, these are two men who know only too well that life is short and not to be taken for granted, so it works. Cat Sebastian has done a great job of creating the atmosphere of an English country village worthy of a Christie novel – which sadly makes the (albeit infrequent) Americanisms (“gotten”, “trash” etc.) stick out like sore thumbs – but the writing is excellent and very perceptive. Page and Sommers make a great sleuthing team and I’m looking forward to reading more in the series.