Tessa Lunney – Autumn Leaves 1922

Pegasus Crime, NY, 2021

I became an immediate fan of Tess Lunney’s work with her first novel April in Paris 1921 where we met heroine, glamorous spy Kiki Button. Tessa nails it again with this thrilling breathless sequel, a tale of espionage, power and politics in 1922 Paris.

Barbie spoke to Tessa Lunney about Autumn Leaves 1922

Kiki is a young Australian woman who worked as a nurse during WW1 and who, in this novel postwar, has escaped the stultifying confines of her conservative family by returning to England and thence on to Paris. She is immediately drawn into espionage work once again.

The associates of the first novel also reappear – the spymaster Fox with his enigmatic communications in verse (Shelley and Keats), her close friend Tom whose name she still has to clear of charges of treason, Bertie who straddles the corridors of power and the news media. She resumes her role of gossip columnist which give her entrée into places where she can snoop.

It all sounds a bit girls’ own, but trust me, it is a beautifully written and cleverly crafted, dark story of the politics of the time, as fascism and communism rose in different parts of the world and spread their tentacles far and wide.

Mussolini makes an appearance and there are references to Adolf Hitler and German nationalist movements. There are also references to particular battles of World War 1 like Passchendaele, and glimpses of the aftermath of the war, both on an individual scale and for the whole of Europe.  

The author weaves several personal stories of power and coercion under the ‘big picture’ scenario – amongst them: the power Fox exerts over Kiki is more than professional interest; Kiki’s recently deceased mother has a mysterious past and other self in Paris for which Kiki searches; her mother’s story is one of domestic coercion and a complicated obsessive love apparently never destined  to fulfilment; Kiki’s own resistance to the pressures to conform to a role of womanhood imposed by family and society.

No plot details to spoil the surprises, but suffice it to say that the resolutions of all these forms of abuse coincide at the end of the novel.

Along with the political, this novel addresses itself to issues of privilege and power. The disparity between the wealthy and the ordinary citizen is starkly portrayed – the exiled White Russians in the persons of the Romanov princes, the behaviour of the wealthy fashionistas, the childlike egotism and disdain for others of the British royals seen against the life of the Paris matchgirl with her violent abusive father.

And then we have all those literary and artistic references. Paris was indeed a centre of innovative culture then as it is now and so many well-known artistic figures worked or lived there in the twenties – Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, Matisse for example. How could any author resist?

In a work driven by fast moving plot, much direct conversation and a goodly dose of derring-do, Tessa Lunney manages to immediately engage our interest and sympathy for her chain-smoking, plucky, if a tad tormented, heroine and her entourage. Kiki is sufficiently complex to ensure that. Her outfits are clearly swoon-worthy, and her energy and commitment to obtaining justice for the oppressed are endearing.

Paris itself demands our attention, as it always does in novels set in its milieu – as indeed does London by way of comparison, from the grunge to the gorgeous, the familiar to the imagined alleys, back streets or lavish apartments. 

Tessa Lunney evokes place and scene with a few well-placed brush strokes: ‘London was charcoal and electric…The dull exteriors of the buildings, in sooty stone and pale brick, the drab clothes of the Londoners, all gray and brown and black….’ as opposed to ‘We were a brightly colored crew that gathered outside Theo’s apartment building. Bertie was in what could only be described as an electric green suit, with a green turban…The journey to the party was a whirl of champagne and laughter.’

This is a book that is hard to put down. It’s a substantial read at 377 pages, but its pace and eked out mysteries keep the reader in thrall to the end – it’s definitely a late-nighter. I loved it and look forward to Kiki’s continuing escapades in 1923.

Just a note that you do not need to read April in Paris 1921 to follow the story in this second book, but naturally, I recommend that  you do.

Thank you to Pegasus Books for the review copy and to Tessa Lunney for a conversation as fabulous as Kiki.