I couldn’t resist going on with the next Julia Probyn novel & I’m about to begin the final book in the series, Julia in Ireland. I’ve just become slightly sidetracked by Elly Griffith’s latest mystery, A Room Full of Bones.
Plot developments (of a personal kind) come thick & fast in the final few Julia books so you may not want to read this review if you’re planning to read the series & want some surprises.
The book begins at Glentoran, the Munro family estate in the Highlands. Julia’s husband, Colonel Philip Jamieson, has been killed in the Middle East while working for British Intelligence. Philip was shot but curiously, Julia hears the cryptic comment that he shouldn’t have been out at all “without his respirator”. Julia’s cousin, Colin Munro, took charge of the mission & blotted his copybook with his superiors by retrieving Philip’s body rather than continuing with the job in hand. Julia is staying at Glentoran with her son, Philip, & close friend, Mrs Hathaway.
Mrs Hathaway is going to Madeira for her health & Julia accompanies her. While there, she becomes involved in a mystery that ties in with the events surrounding her husband’s death. Julia is staying with an old schoolfriend & among their acquaintances are relatives of Colin Munro’s wife, Aglaia. Aglaia knows Julia through the events of The Numbered Account, & she has been sent to Madeira to recuperate after a car accident that led to her losing a baby. On a visit to a high plateau, they notice that the sheep are behaving oddly. They seem dopey & their vision is affected. The local vet can’t explain it & a young boy, the son of one of the servants has similar symptoms. Julia becomes concerned when she discovers that the child had been to the plateau & arranges for him to be seen by another doctor who transfers him to a clinic in Funchal. Julia has also noticed a Russian trawler hovering along the coast & she discovers that a party of men smoking Russian cigarettes have been to the plateau with loads of equipment.
Julia is immediately suspicious as she was involved in the discovery of a Russian plot to lay out listening devices in The Dangerous Islands. She contacts Colin & asks him to come over & investigate. Colin is desperately in need of a success as his bosses were less than impressed by his conduct in the Middle East. Aglaia is also proving to be an encumbrance. She’s very young, very wilful & not very clever. She doesn’t understand that she shouldn’t talk about Colin & his work & their relationship is suffering. She’s also jealous of Julia who has always been involved in Intelligence work in an unofficial way & has a close relationship with Colin.
Colin is surprised to discover that the Russians seem to be testing the same nerve gas on Madeira that they were testing in the Middle East. The climate on Madeira is similar to that of Britain & the plan seems to be that the Russians will use the nerve gas to stupefy the population for long enough to take over government. The sheep are being used as a test case & the Russians have two young Spaniards as accomplices, pretending to be film makers when they’re actually recording the results of the experiment & reporting back to the trawler in the bay.
Julia is her usual, ultra-efficient self, overhearing crucial conversations & dashing to & fro. Colin is reduced to the role of her sidekick, arranging for the London office to send out a boffin to verify their suspicions &, at the same time, trying to sort out his relationship with Aglaia. There are some wonderful minor characters, from Julia’s no-nonsense Nanny Mack, who looks after her small son, to the irascible Doctor who just happens to have an interest in nerve gas & runs a clinic in Funchal where Colin & the boffin from London can hide out while they do their work.
It’s all great fun & exhausting to read with the amount of talking, explaining & running around that Julia does. As always, part of the interest of the book is in the location & we learn a lot about Madeira as well as becoming involved in a classic Cold War adventure. Only one book to go! I’m going to miss Julia when I reach the end of the series.