Rachel Savernake investigates a bizarre locked-room puzzle in this delicious Gothic mystery from the winner of the CWA Diamond Dagger.
1930. Nell Fagan is a journalist on the trail of a intriguing and bizarre mystery: in 1606, a man vanished from a locked gatehouse in a remote Yorkshire village, and 300 years later, it happened again. Nell confides in the best sleuth she knows, judge’s daughter Rachel Savernake. Thank goodness she did, because barely a week later Nell disappears, and Rachel is left to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Looking for answers, Rachel travels to lonely Blackstone Fell in Yorkshire, with its eerie moor and sinister tower. With help from her friend Jacob Flint – who’s determined to expose a fraudulent clairvoyant – Rachel will risk her life to bring an end to the disappearances and bring the truth to light.
A dazzling mystery peopled by clerics and medics; journalists and judges, Blackstone Fell explores the shadowy borderlands between spiritual and scientific; between sanity and madness; and between virtue and deadly sin.
It was the female characters that drew me into this interesting mystery that travels from London to the village of Blackstone Fell. Three particular women caught my eye and my imagination throughout the novel: Cornelia ‘Nell’ Fagan, Rachel Savernake, and the minor character of Ottilie Curle. All three women are very different from the usual heroines of Gothic Literature and a world away from their own Victorian mothers. In fact when I compared them with other women in the novel they don’t conform to the average respectable middle class lady one bit. Nell drew me into the story first, perhaps because she’s best described as ‘a bit of a character’. Everyone in Fleet Street knows her and she’s a regular in all the hang outs including the pub. Nell smokes cheroots, drinks like a fish, earns a living as a journalist, is a bit loose with the truth and loves to tell a story. Recently she’s lost her steady job and has been scouting around for stories that might enable her to start freelance work. She stumbles on the mystery of Blackstone Fell and there’s nothing better than a locked room puzzle to get the cogs turning. She bravely decides to undertake research on the ground and where better to stay than the very gatehouse where two men disappeared 300 years apart. She soon gets the message that there are people still living in the village who don’t want this story investigated. Realising it’s more than she can manage alone she begrudgingly asks for the help of Rachel Savernake. Can they solve the mystery together?
Rachel is another independent woman, financially independent and fiercely intelligent. She loves to solve mysteries especially those involving murders. She’s incredibly observant and perceptive, knowing immediately when Nell is spinning a yarn or lying by omission. She has certain standards for those who work alongside her, expecting loyalty and complete honesty. When these standards aren’t met she is ruthless in her decision to dispense with people. There’s a ruthlessness about her investigation technique too. When she finds information or solves a mystery, she doesn’t just hand over what she knows to the police. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, sometimes she knows of a better way to dispense justice, whatever form that might take. One character suggests she plays God and there is an element of that in her personality; a certain arrogance that she’s right, combined with the self-belief that only she knows the best way for someone to pay for their actions. I was also fascinated by Tilly, the medium first consulted by Nell who reappears in the story. She’s from a background of poverty, using the only gift she has to make a living. I was interested in the way her appearance is depicted. Like Martha, who looks after Rachel, Tilly is a marked woman. Martha has a scarred face from a burn, whereas Tilly has a scarred neck from a thyroid condition. Marked women have quite a history in Victorian fiction and they are often used to make a point, like Rosa Dartle in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Martha’s scars are a contrast, enhancing the beauty of the rest of her face. Tilly’s scars and her obesity are used more like a smoke screen. People’s prejudices around women who are marked or deemed unattractive, can throw them off the truth about a person. The fact that her servant is a ‘Moor’, is another aspect that’s unconventional. I realised that Tilly might be all too aware of how people see her and has used that knowledge to hide behind their assumptions.
I loved the novel’s setting. Blackstone Fell couldn’t be more gothic. Not only does the village have a creepy gate lodge where two men have disappeared: there’s a tower that looks more like a folly rather than a practical home; the river with it’s beautiful, but dangerous fall, where one wrong step could mean being dragged into the water and dashed to death on the rocks below; the endless fog and boggy ground of the moor has it’s own dangers for those who’ve become lost or disoriented. Then there’s the sanatorium, with it’s isolated location, mysterious residents and methods. Finally there’s the vicarage, where the fire and brimstone vicar seems to have a disintegrating relationship with his much younger and highly strung wife. Phew! It was a lot to keep straight in my head at times.
The historical background is fascinating too. We’re between two world wars where so much change has occurred both for individuals and society. The social order has shifted, with more upward mobility, more freedom and improved rights for women. I loved the power dynamics at play here and the sense that these years are an in between space. The vicar and his wife illustrate the old Victorian, traditional idea of a women’s lot in life. It seems archaic when compared to the independent paths that Rachel, Nell and even Tilly have carved out for themselves. Tilly’s success as a medium echoes a societal trend, fuelled by the loss of loved ones, both in WW1 and due to Spanish Influenza. Through the medical men in the story, the author touches on the rise of Eugenics Theory at this time; the idea that there were weaker or lesser races and hereditary disabilities that needed to be eradicated. This could be used as a way to rid oneself of an unstable or inconvenient wife or an old uncle with dementia standing between someone and their inheritance. However, when applied to society at large it became the gateway to Mosley’s ‘BlackShirts’ and Hitler’s Final Solution. The plot itself is an interesting puzzle, although at times I did flounder a bit to remember all the aspects or keep characters in order. I’m willing to accept this might be my brain at fault, so I really welcomed the clue finder at the end of the book that helpfully showed me where to find clues for every thread. There were twists right up to the final page so I defy anyone to work it all out, before Rachel explains her reasoning and unmasks the villains. This was an intelligent mystery, with solid female characters, all set within a period of history that provides an unsettling backdrop to the action.
Meet The Author
Martin Edwards has received the CWA Diamond Dagger, the highest honour in British crime writing, given for the sustained excellence of his contribution to the genre. His recent novels include Mortmain Hall and Gallows Court, which was nominated for two awards including the CWA Historical Dagger. British librarians awarded him the CWA Dagger in the Library in 2018 in recognition of his body of work. His eight and latest Lake District Mystery is The Crooked Shore and earlier books in the series include The Coffin Trail, short-listed for the Theakston’s prize for best British crime novel. Seven books in his first series, featuring Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin, starting with the CWA John Creasey Dagger-nominated All the Lonely People, have been reissued by Acorn in new editions with introductions by leading writers including Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid.
Martin is a well-known crime fiction critic, and series consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics. His ground-breaking study of the genre between the wars, The Golden Age of Murder won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating and Macavity awards. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books won the Macavity and was nominated for four other awards, while Howdunit, a masterclass in crime writing by members of the Detection Club, won the H.R.F. Keating prize and was nominated for five other awards. His long-awaited history of the genre, The Life of Crime, will be published in May 2022. In addition Martin has written a stand-alone novel of psychological suspense, Take My Breath Away, and a much acclaimed novel featuring Dr Crippen, Dancing for the Hangman. He also completed Bill Knox’s last book, The Lazarus Widow. He has published many short stories, including the ebooks The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and Acknowledgments and other stories. ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice‘ won the CWA Short Story Dagger, for which he has been nominated for three other stories. He has edited over 40 anthologies and published diverse non-fiction books, including a study of homicide investigation, Urge to Kill. An expert on crime fiction history, he is archivist of both the Crime Writers’ Association and the Detection Club. He was elected eighth President of the Detection Club in 2015, spent two years as Chair of the CWA, and posts regularly to his blog.