#818 Shoulder pads and red lipstick

The War Widow
by Tara Moss

Toronto: HarperCollins, 2020
$34.00 / 9781443461207

Reviewed by Valerie Green

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Tara Moss has created another excellent piece of crime fiction with The War Widow.

The style of this book, although perhaps a little far-fetched in places, is reminiscent of old movies set in the 1940s like Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The more I read, the more I became immersed in an era when men wore suits and trilby hats and women wore fashionable, padded-shouldered dresses, and ridiculously exotic hats.

The book is set in postwar Australia in 1946 with a heroine, Billie Walker, who is both glamorous and streetwise. She is a woman who refuses to adapt to what women were expected to do after the war was over — marry, go back to the kitchen as housewives, and have babies.

We learn that during the war, Billie was a journalist in Europe and, as an excellent war correspondent, has experienced first-hand the excitement and horror of the battlefields. It was there that she fell in love and married her husband, Jake, who then went missing and is presumed dead. After exploring every avenue to find him, she is forced to accept that to all intents and purposes he is dead, and that she is now a war widow.

Canadian-Australian crime writer and model Tara Moss, born in Victoria in 1973. Photographed in Gastown by Berndt Sellheim

Billie reluctantly returns to her hometown, Sydney, where her late father, an ex-cop, ran a private investigation agency. Without her father at the helm the business has suffered, but Billie decides to keep it going with the help of her assistant, Sam Baker. Business is slow until one day a woman comes to her office asking for help to find her missing son.

Dressed to kill in her fashionable dresses, carrying her concealed pistol on her hip, and wearing her bright “fighting red” lipstick, Billie sets off to find the son on a mysterious journey that leads her in many directions and ultimately to a terrible discovery linking back to Nazi Germany.

Solving the case is far from easy, but Billie Walker soon proves that she is able to tackle anything that comes her way. She is not put off by setbacks. Not your average frail female, Billie fights with the best of them. But she is also, in keeping with post-war times, frugal. A brilliant dressmaker, she can make her own clothes and darn her own stockings.

Tara Moss’s fashion descriptions throughout the book are worth mentioning. They are detailed and impeccable. She has researched the fashion of the forties well and paints a most colourful and intricate picture.

Tara Moss at Central Police Court, Sydney, 2018. Photo by Berndt Sellheim

In addition, her expressive portrayals of other characters in the story cannot be faulted: John Wilson (the lift operator in her office building); Sam Baker (her willing assistant); Adin Brown (the missing boy); Billie’s mother (the Baroness Ella von Hooft, who had married Billie’s father for love); and the Baroness’s faithful maid Alma McGuire.

The story builds to an exciting, over-the-top climax and then ends somewhat abruptly. The final scene disappointed me as I had hoped to see a few other loose ends tied up with a different result. Instead, the reader is left metaphorically and literally on a ledge, wondering what might happen next. On the other hand, perhaps the author intended this open-ended conclusion to leave latitude for a sequel to Billy Walker’s story. I hope so, because Tara Moss has created a top-notch protagonist in The War Widow.

Tara Moss is an international bestselling author whose crime novels have been published in many countries and many languages. As a human rights activist, she frequently speaks out for women and children and is widely known for her feminist views. Today she lives in Vancouver with her family.

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Valerie Green

Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books including Above StairsUpstarts and Outcasts, and Dunmora: The Story of a Heritage Manor House on Vancouver Island (Hancock House, 2017 [reviewed by Patrick Dunae in The Ormsby Review no. 434, December 11, 2018 — Ed]. She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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Tara Moss in Victoria, 2018. Photo courtesy Facebook
A previous (non-fiction) book by Moss, The Fictional Woman (HarperCollins, 2014)
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