My thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for an invitation to read this book via NetGalley.

In Place of Fear is a piece of historical fiction, and a mystery set in post-World-War-II Edinburgh against the backdrop of the introduction of the NHS. Our protagonist Helen Crowther is a young woman, about to begin a new job as a medical almoner—someone who convinces and helps people sign up for the NHS, helps fill forms for the various things they need, spreads awareness on nutrition and basic health, and even checks in on houses to determine living conditions including hygiene. Helen is nervous but excited about her job, but her mother is strongly opposed, seeming to think that Helen is merely using it as an excuse for ‘dolling up’ rather than that she actually wants the job. Helen’s mother, Greet works at a bottling factory while her father works at a slaughter house; they live in a poorer quarter of town and think Helen is perhaps reaching beyond her station. Helen has been married to her childhood sweetheart, Sandy for two years, but the scars of the war on Sandy mean there are difficulties in their relationship, and he seems to be fighting some demons of his own. Helen is determined to prove that she can do well at her job, and on the very first day also finds herself offered a small home for her use by the doctors at whose clinic she is based.

As she starts her job, we see the various problems that she has to deal with from reticent people to downright hostile ones, with some cases revealing the plight of those in the poorer quarters. There are also those who are wary of the NHS itself, looking upon it as charity to which they are unwilling to sign on. Meanwhile as Helen and Sandy move in to their new home, the very first day, in the Anderson shelter beneath their home, she finds the body of a young woman. The doctor determines it is suicide, but thinking back over it, Helen isn’t convinced. Once she starts to look into the matter, she finds almost everyone wanting to brush it under the carpet. But why? Who was the young woman and why was she killed?

This was an interesting read but rather different from what was promised by its description as ‘a gripping new historical crime novel’.  

I enjoyed getting a look into the initial days of the NHS. I had no idea that there was so much reluctance on many people’s part to actually accept the service, or that they saw it as charity which they didn’t feel right accepting, and how much convincing it took to get them to sign on. I had also never heard of a medical almoner before so it was interesting to get to know about the position and what the person employed had to do. And it certainly wasn’t a simple job—filling forms was the least of their duties, there had to be a connect, a sense of comfort with the people they were dealing with so that they would open up about their problems, as well as the ability to handle the more difficult ones—especially when the problem involved touched a raw nerve. Set as this was amongst the poorer quarters of Edinburgh, one gets a glimpse into life in these spaces, the problems and dangers that many had to face, as well as prevalent mores and viewpoints (which prominently included confining women to traditional roles, and to work in only certain acceptable jobs, but with the primary role being of wives and mothers).

The mystery itself isn’t quite at the centre of the story for most part of the book. The body is found only about a fourth of the way into the book, and after some initial confusion, it is something that Helen thinks about but only starts beginning to look into after some time. In her investigations, if Helen is daring and has a strong sense of justice, she also mostly comes across as rather naïve as well. Agreed that she is young, but the way she simply walks in and confronts those that she suspects of wrongdoing or plans to seems a little foolish, considering a murder is involved. Even in her duties as an almoner, she seems to struggle and trip up a little more than one would expect her to, considering she has been assisting a wealthy lady, Mrs Sinclair, with similar duties previously (and which led to her getting trained and getting this job).

The whodunit (as least part of it) was something I felt one could guess from quite early on, from the way certain things were playing out—the clues were fairly strong—but there was also an element which I didn’t work out. The why and what was involved in the plot on the other hand we find out only as we read on. There were some surprises in the plot which I didn’t quite see coming, both relating to the mystery and other threads of the story.

The book uses Scottish dialect quite extensively which had both its pros and cons. While on the one hand, it added a definite sense of authenticity, on the other it was also hard/slow to read. And then again, the fact that the dialect wasn’t used when say, describing Helen’s thoughts, felt a bit of a mismatch though I can understand why this would have been done. There’s no easy answer to this one really.

I enjoyed reading this book, but I think rather than the mystery itself, the look into life in the poorer quarters of Edinburgh in the post-war period, and the initial days of the NHS were aspects I found most interesting. Helen’s life and family and her experiences at work were likewise very readable. This is not to say that the mystery was bad as such—it was engaging enough, but the fact that it wasn’t quite the focus of the book, Helen naivety in handling it, and to an extent, the seedier elements that the solution involved, didn’t make it as enjoyable for me as I’d expected.

3.25 stars

9 thoughts on “Book Review: In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson

  1. Sorry this fell a bit short of your expectations Mallika, but glad that you found the history of the NHS origins interesting. You really have to wonder why blurbs are so often misleading. Does the author write them, or the publisher?

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    1. It wasn’t a bad book by any means, and to be fair to the blurb writers they did mention the aspects about the NHS and Helen’s social circumstances–and they weren’t wrong about there being a mystery but perhaps they were in making it sound more prominent than it was since it only comes more in focus later on in the book.

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  2. Hmm, pity the mystery element was a bit weak, but I’m interested in the early look at the NHS. I worked in the NHS on and off throughout my career and while I obviously don’t go quite as far back as its beginnings, I certainly saw plenty of changes and developments over the years. Not convinced many of them have been for the better! I may read this one, forewarned not to expect too much from the mystery aspect.

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    1. The NHS aspects are mostly from the perspective of Helen as an almoner going about her duties, handling different people, and advising them how they need to go about things (forms and home visits). People’s reluctance to sign on comes up as well. It doesn’t go into the system as such, but more its application.

      The mystery wouldn’t have probably disappointed as much had one known it wasn’t the focus of the story. Since it was already kind of secondary, the other issues rankled more.

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  3. This does sound interesting. I never knew how hard it was to start the NHS in the UK, but as hard as it was, at least they got it done which is more than we can say here in the US

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    1. There was both some lack of awareness and a reluctance to sign on from people. Of course, in this book we are looking at Edinburgh’s poorer segments at the time and from the perspective of the almoner working with them

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    1. The setting and details of what an almoner did and such were interesting. Also I think it brought out mores and also the problems faced by those in the poorer quarters, especially women well.

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