The Tea Ladies, Amanda Hampson

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

THE TEA LADIES by Amanda Hampson is one of those interesting sort of novels that tippy toes a line between its cosy(ish) setting and some considerably more ruthless plot lines with a deftness that made for a really enjoyable reading experience. 

Set in Sydney in 1965 in the world of rag trade factories, tea ladies Hazel, Betty, Merl and Irene find themselves taking on the role of accidental sleuths partly because wrongs must be righted, partly because there's a young woman they believe might be in danger (sisters and all that...), and partly because, it has to be said, there's a hole in their lives that could be nicely filled with a bit of digging about in a mystery or two.

Aside - when I first came to the big city and started working in a few large firms, tea ladies were still a thing. They came round the office a couple of times a day, dispensing cups of tea, biscuits and sometimes a smile, and they missed absolutely nothing that was going on. They were also supremely good at treating everyone in much the same manner - from the senior partner, to the junior typists, and they took no nonsense from anybody. They were, indeed, a force. So the depiction of the main characters felt right. As did the sorts of lives these women lived in and out of work.

Each of these women are very different, Irene is as tough and rough as they come, yet it turns out, vulnerable, with a past that's hinted at (let's hope there's more on that to come in future outings). Hazel, the main character in many ways, is the tea lady at Empire Fashionwear, and old firm with quite a few old stick in the mud employees, in a world where Jean Shrimpton and that mini skirt at the Melbourne Cup are about to set fire to the Australian fashion world. She's a sensible sort of woman, possessed of an uncanny ability to tell when somebody is lying to her face (pity she didn't apply that skill more strenuously when it came to her husband), but everything here is kicked off when Hazel spies a young woman asking for help from the upper window of an abandoned warehouse that she can see from her factory offices. Of the other two ladies, Betty's the notetaker, the observer and an able sidekick and Merl is a maker of cakes, and mother-in-law connection to the local cop, who it has to be said, is a less than stellar investigator despite his mother-in-law's faith in him.

There's a lot going on in this novel but it's delivered beautifully, with a lot of funny asides, and observations about life, love, people and places that fit right in. It's not all plain sailing for the ladies either with precarious living situations, dodgy as hell husband's and the aforementioned son-in-law who is not doing as well as some would believe. But it's all well balanced against a plot which is rich with tidbits from the time - lurking Russians, strip clubs, circus performers, dodgy accountants and some employees determined to drag an old firm into the current world come hell, high water, or unlined frocks.

I have no idea why I plucked this novel from the piles, on the face of it, everything says "not your cup of tea" (with or without the fancy biscuits). So pleased that whatever lapse, senior moment, desperate search for distraction or sheer laziness of reaching out and grabbing what's there, happened to occur. Great fun, and the second in the series THE CRYPTIC CLUE is out now.

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They keep everyone's secrets, until there's a murder...

Sydney, 1965: After a chance encounter with a stranger, tea ladies Hazel, Betty and Irene become accidental sleuths, stumbling into a world of ruthless crooks and racketeers in search of a young woman believed to be in danger.

In the meantime, Hazel’s job at Empire Fashionwear is in jeopardy. The firm has turned out the same frocks and blouses for the past twenty years and when the mini-skirt bursts onto the scene, it rocks the rag trade to its foundations. War breaks out between departments and it falls to Hazel, the quiet diplomat, to broker peace and save the firm.

When there is a murder in the building, the tea ladies draw on their wider network and put themselves in danger as they piece together clues that connect the murder to a nearby arson and a kidnapping. But if there’s one thing tea ladies can handle, it’s hot water.

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