Catriona McPherson is an author I’ve wanted to try for a while; I keep seeing her books on other blogs I follow and they always sound interesting. Her latest novel, In Place of Fear, turned out to be a good one for me to start with; it’s a fascinating historical mystery set in Edinburgh just after World War II.
It’s 1948 and Helen Crowther is about to start a new job as medical almoner for the newly formed National Health Service. Working alongside two doctors, Dr Deuchar and Dr Strasser, Helen will be making home visits to patients, giving them advice and ensuring that they get the help they need – a role similar to a modern-day social worker. She’s looking forward to the new job, but at the same time she knows there are going to be difficulties: first of all, she will have to convince the disbelieving public that healthcare under the new NHS really is free and they no longer need to worry about paying for their treatment; she also has to contend with the disapproval of her mother, who wishes she would get a job in a factory like other working class women. It comes as a relief when Dr Strasser offers Helen the upstairs flat in an empty building he owns, so that she and her husband, Sandy, can move out of her parents’ overcrowded house at last.
Helen’s marriage has not been a particularly happy one so far; Sandy has spent several years in a POW camp and since returning to Scotland has been struggling to cope with married life. Helen hopes the situation will improve now that they can be alone together, but just as she and Sandy are beginning to settle into their new home, she discovers the body of a young woman in the air raid shelter in the garden! The doctor is summoned and after examining the body he decides that it was suicide, but Helen is not convinced. Who is this young woman and how did she die? Helen is determined to find out, even though everyone else seems equally determined to cover up what has happened.
The mystery aspect of this novel takes a while to get started and never really becomes the main focus of the book until near the end when Helen begins to uncover some secrets that have remained hidden for several years. However, I thought it was a very intriguing mystery and although I had my suspicions as to who the culprit might be, I was unable to guess the other parts of the solution. Looking at other reviews of the book, it seems that a lot of readers were disappointed that the crime element wasn’t stronger but this didn’t really bother me as I was finding it so interesting to read about life in 1940s Edinburgh and the beginnings of the NHS. There’s also a heavy use of Scottish dialect which I suppose people will either like or they won’t, but I thought it added to the strong sense of time and place and I found it easy enough to follow what was being said.
A lot of time is spent on Helen’s visits to people in the community, particularly young mothers and those who are hoping to become mothers, so that she can advise them on diet and hygiene and make sure they are receiving the medical care they’re entitled to. I wasn’t familiar with the role of medical almoners before reading this book, so I found it fascinating to learn about what the job involved. Before 1948, the almoner would assess patients to decide how much they could afford to pay, but with the birth of a health service that was ‘free at the point of use’ this became unnecessary and the almoner could devote more time to actually helping the patients with their medical and welfare needs. However, Helen sometimes goes above and beyond what is required and sometimes she makes mistakes or is seen as interfering in things that are none of her business. It was watching her going about her daily work and trying to decide how to handle each difficult situation that I found particularly enjoyable, so it didn’t matter to me that the mystery was so slow to develop.
I would like to try more of Catriona McPherson’s books. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which one I should read next!
Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 24/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.