The Nightingale Affair
“Because Mason places the killer and his excuses openly among his protagonists, and the threats to Field and his family are menacing and time-linked . . . The Nightingale Affair is at least as much of a thriller as it is a historical novel.”
Tim Mason’s earlier historical mystery, The Darwin Affair, brought Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field into investigating the attempted London murder of Queen Victoria. In a clever twist of expectations, The Nightingale Affair offers a sequel in which Charles Field no longer holds a position with the police, and has sunk to investigating cheating spouses to earn a living. Other aspects of his life seem well in order, though, with his foster son a newly approved mounted policeman, his foster daughter no longer a thief but a clean and cheerful young woman eager to study nursing, and his wife Jane managing the household happily.
Then, in a matter of hours, it’s all upside down, as Field discovers a murder with the unmistakable “calling card” of a killer he thought he’d finished off during his career, in a stint with Florence Nightingale’s British nurses during the Crimean War in the 1850s. At the same time, his son Tom loses his new job through making a morally right choice that counters his superior officer, his daughter Belinda comes under threat, and his wife is summoned once again to the support of now ailing and aging Miss Nightingale.
The book dances back and forth in time, with the heroic Miss Nightingale at the focus of each scenario, and Field himself endlessly struggling to catch up with the nobility and self-denial that the nursing leader models. Mason shifts points of view often, including indulging the killer himself with a podium that allows vicious revenge to justify all sorts of violence.
Mason’s background includes the stage, and there are abundant Shakespearean moments scattered through almost 400 pages of this lively Victorian thriller. Cameo appearances by Benjamin Disraeli and Wilkie Collins and the involvement of the most noted novelist of the time, Charles Dickens, add twists of interest and humor. But death itself is treated solemnly, a fitting counterpart to the woman Mason presents as a guardian of the lives of young men at war and postwar hospitals: a woman of “breathless speed” and irresistible commitment, Florence Nightingale herself:
“There were fully a dozen people, almost all female, rushing in and out of Nightingale’s tower headquarters when Charles Field first saw her. He knew it had to be Nightingale; she was the calm eye of a whirling storm, standing at her desk, answering questions and asking them, issuing orders, and occasionally making entries in a ledger as she stood. Her voice was quiet but had a reedy strength that cut through the seeming chaos around her.”
Because Mason places the killer and his excuses openly among his protagonists, and the threats to Field and his family are menacing and time-linked, The Nightingale Affair is at least as much of a thriller (think: ticking clock) as it is a historical novel. Yet the portrait of Nightingale both in her prime and as an aging yet still effective advocate is strong and memorable, giving the book its lively flavor that hints at all the shifts in women’s rights and health care about to unfold. Don’t expect an extraordinary police investigation here; read the book instead for the colorful storytelling around this classic “change agent” and her insistence on respect, honor, and care.