1985; 216 pages. New Author? : No. Book #1 (of 2) of Tom Holt’s continuation of E.F. Benson’s Lucia series. Genre : Humor, British Fiction. Overall Rating : 6½*/10.
It’s the height of the Second World War, and it’s up to every able-bodied Englishman to do his part in the war effort. That includes the good civilians in the quaint little (fictional) Sussex coastal town of Tilling.
For some, it means parading around as part of the town’s militia. Heaven help us all if they have to defend against invading Germans. For others, it means teaching cooking on the radio – somehow making savory dishes from cabbage and turnips.
But for Lucia Pillson and Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, the phrase “war effort” means a personal, no-holds-barred, to-the-death contest, with the social status of being Tilling’s social queen at stake. Which, when you get right down to it, kinda outshines the fighting over across the channel.
What’s To Like...
The two Lucia books are early efforts by Tom Holt, published in 1985/86, the year before his first novel, Expecting Someone Taller, came out. The books were deliberately written in the style of the series’ original author, E.F. Benson. As such, the storyline of Lucia in Wartime is more focused and less convoluted than the usual “Tom Holt plotline”. But his natural talent for wit is already present.
Lucia and Elizabeth are the stars, vying for the spotlight and social supremacy. They both have their pride and their faults, and are differentiated only by Lucia being a bit more successful at her conniving, and slightly (but only slightly) more likeable. Their husbands are both pleasantly bumbling. The rest of the characters are a fascinating assortment of townsfolk that could’ve easily fallen out of a P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves novel, albeit without the problem-solving butler himself.
The book has a nice “feel” for life in WW2 England, with things like ration cards, invasion fears, suspected enemy agents, and a thriving black market. It was another world, yet Holt gives it a light, whimsical touch, without making it any less real. The ending is a letdown, being both abrupt and arbitrary. But I don’t know if this is a Benson-esque climax, and/or if it sets up the sequel, Lucia Triumphant.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Peripeteia (n.) : A sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances.
Others : Danegeld; Sinecure
“My dear, you aren’t horrified, are you? I hope I haven’t offended your principles by offering you black-market fish.” (. . .)
"Dear Lord Tony,” she purred, “do you suppose a poor civilian like myself could provide a square meal for four hungry soldiers from the Government ration? Very well then, let us not mention a horrid subject again.”
“Well said!” exclaimed Lord Limpsfield. “Some people are so stuffy and silly. But I always say that all’s fair in love and war, and there’s a war on, and I love salmon mousse, so that’s fair enough. Au reservoir!” (loc. 1149)
“We must face facts. Jerry’s out there,” Benjy cried, waving his hand in the general direction of Hastings. “He’s biding his time, waiting to pounce. And to make matters worse, my sergeant's been called up. Terrible! Ah well, there it is. It’s here he’ll attack, you mark my words. Think of William the Conqueror,” he added darkly.
“He was French,” said Georgie.
“Ah, but the French were our enemies then. Puts a whole new complexion on the matter.” (loc. 5323)
Lucia in Wartime sells for $6.95 at Amazon, as does its companion book Lucia Triumphant.
“We are not fighting for Bridge and boiled cabbage, but for Beauty and Truth.” (loc. 5597)
It appears that most of those who pick up Lucia In Wartime do so because they read and loved the E.F. Benson Lucia books, and are thrilled to find that Holt wrote two additions to the series. I’ve never read any of the Benson books; I read LIW because I’m a Tom Holt enthusiast.
Frankly, this is not his best stuff, but OTOH, it is a nice first-effort and he was trying to write in somebody else’s style. When you remove those two constraints – and allow Holt to do his own thing – he’s a topnotch author.
I really should’ve read one of the E.F. Benson books first. I thought they were hard to find (Benson wrote them in the 1920’s and 30’s), but it turns out two are available as free Kindle downloads from Amazon (the copyrights have expired), and the Phoenix library carries the rest of them in hardcover format. So methinks a trip to the library is in order for next weekend.
6½ Stars. Subject to an upward revision if E.F. Benson turns out to be a mediocre writer, and Tom Holt is just mimicking his style. DO NOT make this your first Tom Holt book.