Mystery to the Max
Cold Crash and The Running Lie, Jennifer Young, Cinnamon Press.
Never happier than when up to her knees in mud on a Viking dig, but equally poised in fabulous Jacques Fath evening wear, Max Falkland is the unlikely heroine of Jennifer Young’s Cold Crash and The Running Lie.
Set in the early 1950s, against the backdrop of an intensifying Cold War, the books show a country battered and bruised from war and privations that followed it, but keen to let its hair down, open up and have some fun –Young captures all the exoticism and excitement of an Italian coffee bar in Soho, the backdrop to one of Max’s early encounters with the mysterious, maddening John Knox.
With a rich American mother and an aristocratic father, she could have been a debutante and married into more wealth, but her interest in archaeology has led her down the academic route, and she numbers among her friends penurious students and artists – and why not? They give great parties.
Having recently obtained her Ph.D. Max is at the point where the world should be her oyster – but it’s not that straightforward. We can take as read widespread discrimination against female archaeologists, and even if she was offered a post anywhere would it be morally right for her to take up a paid position when she doesn’t really need a salary? Meanwhile her mother is eyeing up up any male with a pulse as possible marriage material, and last but very much not least she is still grieving for her brother, a pilot missing presumed dead in the Korean War.
No wonder the prospect of a summer on Mull, learning to dive and searching for Viking shipwrecks is appealing, especially as Max is not one to be put off by icy water and gale force winds.
But Mull is a long way, so Max, a veteran of the Air Transport Auxiliary, the corps responsible for delivering planes to airfields during the war, decides to fly her plane up – after all, it will be needed for aerial reconnaissance of the sea’s surface, to spot currents that suggest the presence of large objects below the water. Inexplicably, the plane fails and she is forced into a crash landing.
There have been odd occurrences, glances, coincidences in London, but here is surely evidence of some malign intelligence at work: Max is too meticulous a pilot to set off with anything less than an immaculately prepared craft.
From here on in, the signs and portents multiply, leading Max into danger. You end up trusting no one, not even Max’s closest friends. What Young is so good at, across both books, is the painstaking accretion of detail that may or may not be relevant: half-heard conversations, small objects apparently teleporting from one location to another, the revelation that people Max had assumed to be strangers turn out to know each other, the shifting identity of even the most innocuous of bit players – it all accelerates into a fast-paced denouement.
At the centre is Max herself, cool and unflappable in a crisis, but reckless in her passion for John Knox, and likely to be ambushed at any moment by her great sadness for her brother. Her ability to to move seamlessly across a range of milieux means we can become absorbed in the world of academic archaeology one minute (the real Sir Mortimer Wheeler puts in a cameo appearance), a Hampstead art gallery the next, a bone-infested dig, or one of her mother’s society parties, where she must swap her favoured Vassar look (baggy shirt tucked into trousers) for lovingly described couture.
A Little Switch, the third in the Max Falkland series, is due out in 2022. Considering where we left Max at the end of The Running Lie, can I wait that long?