Harmony and Will have been together for a long time and live in a garden flat in London. They are the couple that most of their friends and family would say are meant to be together. Harmony’s closest friend, Amanda and her husband, throw a party where Harmony bumps into a man she feels an instant chemistry with. They talk for a while and when he suggests they just get into the car and leave together, she’s shocked to find that part of her responds to his suggestion. Harmony goes to find Will and imagines she will never see this man again. It’s only a few days later, that the couple go to lunch with Amanda who explains that they are also entertaining one of her husband Ian’s clients. Client Luke isn’t new to Harmony, he’s the man from the party, but much to her surprise, Luke isn’t new to Will either.
In fact Will’s reaction goes far beyond his explanation that he knew Luke at School. I knew immediately there was something much worse. Harmony has always wondered why Will is so cagey about his past, especially because he’s very stubborn in his outlook about becoming a parent himself. His childhood was so bad, he can’t imagine being a good parent. He is great with Amanda’s kids, but adamant he and Harmony should remain childless. So when Harmony became pregnant a few months ago he wasn’t going to be overjoyed. In fact when she tragically lost their baby, Harmony was devastated and Will’s first emotion was relief, not that he’s told her this. She has now realised how much she wants a child, but isn’t hopeful of changing his mind. It was while they were slightly at odds with each other, that Luke had bumped into a confused and vulnerable Harmony. Luke continues to be charming, intelligent and very forthright about his attraction to Harmony, including turning up at her work. Her head is turned, but despite that she knows she loves Luke. She wants to be his wife, but what if they don’t want the same things any more? When Ian introduced Luke has such a charismatic way about him. She could see though, that Will was horrified to see Luke again. His explanation that they were at boarding school together seems plausible, but she knows there’s more and so do we.
Amanda Jennings has a clever way of introducing you to characters and they don’t grab you immediately, because you’re taking in the world they’re in and the clues about the story. Then suddenly, by about the fifth page, she’s got you caught in a vice like grip. That was certainly the case here, as the sophisticated city lives these characters live is a world away from a country mouse like me. Yet as soon as Luke met Harmony, I knew there was something off and that he had an agenda. He intervenes between the couple at the perfect time too, not that he could have know that – or could he? Luke has a strange magnetism around him even when he’s at school. Will’s early life is sad and his father is abusive. I could understand why he didn’t want to relive it, but when we don’t talk about things they gain an importance they often don’t warrant. We know that whatever is at the root of the animosity between Luke and Will, it’s something humiliating, shameful and life changing. Jennings beautiful times her chapters so we get a bit of the present day and then a snippet of Will’s story. They way it’s eked out keeps you reading and it’s a story that’s horrifying and devastating for these young boys. I won’t say any more, but when we meet a classmate of theirs later on in the novel I wanted to push him under a bus! The fact that things like this happen at boarding school isn’t surprising, but creating or turning a blind eye to an environment like this should be criminal.
Harmony is an interesting character because she almost acted as if she had no choices. I think she’s still in that numb stage of grief and in this vulnerable state people make bad decisions. She seemed to have low self-esteem and really struggled to create boundaries. When Luke starts to encroach on her workplace and not take no for an answer, I was mentally screaming at her to say no and walk away. I wanted her to make a scene and call the police. Especially at first, because she’s done nothing wrong in chatting to a man at a party. I also wanted her and Will to communicate. The key to everything are those secrets that Will has been keeping, things that have happened that make him sure he’s unloveable and unfit to be a parent. It’s Harmony’s fear of encroaching on those boundaries that leads to her keeping her own secrets in turn. The author slowly turns the screw and the tensions rise, making it impossible to put the book down. I was glued to the story, hoping for the couple to break their silence and come together. This had all the ingredients of a great thriller and has real psychological insight into bullying and trauma. It was also brilliant to read a thriller where psychological healing is such an important part of the equation, as well as the thrilling twists and turns.
Meet The Author
As opposed to this latest novel, Amanda’s previous novels The Storm, In Her Wake and The Cliff House, are all set in Cornwall, in Newlyn, St Ives, and Sennen respectively. Cornwall is where her heart truly lies! Her mother’s side of the family is from Penzance and she holds many blissful memories of long summers spent there. She is never happier than when she’s beside the sea, though she’s also fond of a mountain, especially when it’s got snow on it. When she’s not beside the sea or up a mountain or sitting at my desk, you can usually find her chatting on the radio as a regular guest on BBC Berkshire’s weekly Book Club, or loitering on Twitter (@mandajjennings), Facebook and Instagram (@amandajennings1). She loves meeting and engaging with readers, whether that’s on social media, or at libraries, book clubs and literary festivals. If you see her out and about at an event do say hello! You can find more information on her webpage: http://www.amandajennings.co.uk
Just a couple of weeks ago I was waxing lyrical about Kate Atkinson’s novel Shrines of Gaiety and then another novel passes my way covering the same territory and the same time period. While I loved Atkinson’s novel on it’s own merits, this one feels more urgent and alive. I felt immediately in the story and fascinated by the two main female characters. Ruby is one of a female gang known as the Forty Thieves (the Forties) who commit crimes from pick-pocketing for the young members to shoplifting and even jewellery theft for those more experienced members. Ruby has been one of the Forties for years and due to her looks doesn’t always attract suspicion in the fancier stores. In fact, she’s on a joint job with her lover Billy from the Elephant Boys, when she first runs into Harriet Littlemore. Harriet is the real deal, a young woman from a very good family, engaged to an up and coming member of parliament. Harriet has ambitions beyond being an MP’s wife, she wants to be a journalist and her father permitted her to ask for a job with the evening paper. She’s been hired to write pieces for the woman at home, such as ways to wear the new style of hat, but Harriet has ambitions for so much more, thinking she might write a piece about the young thief she’s seen. However, her fascination with Ruby seems to be much more than journalistic interest.
The story follows these two women as they each pursue their ambitions. Ruby wants to do more work with the Elephant Boys. She wants to take on bigger jobs and wear beautiful clothes and jewellery. When she meets Harriet again, on a shoplifting run in a department store, she cheekily suggests she should update her style. Perhaps she should cut her hair in the new shingled way that’s the height of fashion, Ruby tells her, then she could wear the new style of hat she’s considering. Like a woman in a trance, Harriet goes to a French hairdresser and has her long hair cut short. She’s amazed by how much it suits her and hopes to see Ruby with her new fashionable look, even if it does cause a stir at home, particularly with her traditional mother. She’s furious when the story about the jewellery heist she witnessed is written by one of the male reporters at the paper. So she decides to write a piece on Ruby, the Jewel of the Borough, and gets one of the artists to draw a sketch from her description. In a way, Harriet admires Ruby. She sees Ruby’s freedom, her nerve and confidence, and contrasts it with her own restrictions. She has no idea what her article will truly mean for Ruby. We see what Harriet can’t, because we’ve met the rest of the Forties and Ruby’s other mentor Solly, who runs a jewellery business. The women of the Forties are in a hierarchy, with Annie ? At the top. Many have been thieving since they were children, looked after by the Forties in return for their tiny hands making their way into pockets. The ones that are married are struggling to feed their kids and to avoid their husband’s fists. Most have done time in Holloway and without the Forties, they and their families would be cold and hungry. From Ruby’s perspective, money is freedom and Harriet certainly has plenty of that.
I loved the way the author showed, that despite their differences in class and means, Ruby and Harriet are still second class citizens due to their gender. Although Ruby has earned some equality thanks to her sleight of hand and is chosen by leader Annie, to do jobs with the Elephant Boys, her personal life is very different. Solly is a father figure to her and always keeps a room for above the jewellers, but when it comes to her lover Billy she has no real power. She has confidence in her allure, but when she’s forced to lie low for a while Billy soon moves on to the next warm body. She often has to give up her body to seal a deal, whether it’s a little extra for the man who fences the more risky pieces of jewellery she’s stolen or romancing someone to get information out of them for Peter who runs the nightclub. This work gives her a rather glamorous roof over her head when she really needs it, but she definitely earns her money. Peter has a big job coming up with the Elephants, something that involves men of money and influence. Ruby has no clue how respectable these men are, or their standing in society. It seems to her that all men will use women, no matter how respectable they may seem. Harriet is completely powerless when it comes to the men in her life. She has a life set up for her as Ralph’s wife and her parents can’t understand why she isn’t satisfied with her lot. She has money, beautiful clothes and a handsome fiancé who is going to be a man of great influence. They can’t understand that she wants something for herself, something she has earned on her own merits. I couldn’t put the book down because I wanted both of these women to break out of the prison they are in, choose a different life and perhaps become close. I didn’t want the system to win.
The setting for this fascinating story is beautifully built by the author. We’re post-WW1, a period of huge shifts in the class system and changes for both men and women. The author shows how the class system and expectations of women have changed through Harriet’s relationship with her parents. They still have pre-war attitudes and are expecting Harriet to fall in line. Even the changes she makes to her appearance show that shift from the restrictions of Edwardian dress and the relative freedom of the 1920’s fashions with shorter skirts, no restrictive undergarments and shorter hair. These fashions suit women who are busier and don’t have hours to dress in the morning. Financial changes mean only the very wealthy can afford the help of a ladies maid every morning. Ruby can wear the latest fashions to please herself, when she can afford them. She loves the glamour of the clothes she wears to the club, where she needs to attract the more discerning gentleman.
For the men, those who were in the trenches found them democratising. Bullets and shells don’t care about the class you’re from and although there was still a hierarchy, they died in the mud together. This led to some strange allegiances back in the post-war world. It’s clear to Ruby that there’s a big job on the cards, Billy has hinted as much and her time at the club throws her close to the planning. There are men involved who would never normally give the Elephant Boys the time of day, so they must need them to do the dirty work. These are men from the highest class, who usually drink at their club or the Savoy, but don’t mind slumming it at the club if it makes them money or the company of a woman like Ruby. I desperately wanted some of them to get their come uppance, knowing that’s not always the way of the world. The real winners though are those that can move between worlds, like Peter Lazenby. Though the polish and charm of all these men hides something more brutal. Despite her misdemeanours I was as charmed by Ruby as Harriet was and I wanted her to find a middle ground where she survives comfortably. As for Harriet I wanted her to break out of her parent’s upper class restrictions. I wanted her to have a love affair with someone unsuitable and a friendship with Ruby, if not a full on passionate affair. This was a fantastic book, full of characters, historical detail and that verve and energy that seems synonymous with 1920.
Published by Verve Books 17th November 2023
Meet The Author
Georgina Clarke has always been passionate about stories and history. The Lizzie Hardwicke novels give her the opportunity to bring to life her love of the eighteenth century and her determination that a strong, intelligent and unconventional woman should get to solve the crimes – rather than be cast in the role of the side-kick. Georgina was born in Wolverhampton, has degrees from Oxford, Cambridge and London, but now lives in Worcester with her husband and son and two lively cats.
Her first two novels, Death and the Harlot and The Corpse Played Dead, are published by Canelo. She is currently cooking up plots for the next novels in the series.
If you would like to visit her website, you can find her at:
Death came aboard with the cormorant. It arrived on the seventh day of our voyage…
This is the secret report of disgraced former Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, written on the mail ship Tankerville en route to Philadelphia. His mission is to aid the civil servant charged with carrying a vital treaty to Congress that will prevent the Americans from joining with the French in their war against Britain.
When the civil servant meets an unfortunate ‘accidental’ end, Laurence becomes the one person standing between Britain and disaster. It is his great chance to redeem himself at Whitehall – except that his predecessor has taken the secret of the treaty’s hiding place to his watery grave.
As the ship is searched, Laurence quickly discovers that his fellow passengers – among them fugitive French aristocrats, an American plantation owner, an Irish actress and her performing bear – all have their own motives to find the treaty for themselves. And as a second death follows the first, Laurence must turn sleuth in order to find the killer before he has an ‘accident’ of his own.
I loved that atmospheric opening. The cormorant sitting there on the bow of the ship, nonchalantly drying it’s wings in the wind and oblivious to the superstitions it’s arousing in the crew. If you ever wanted to know what it was like to take a voyage from Falmouth to Philadelphia in the 18th Century then look no further than this novel from Leonora Nattrass. It is so detailed and grabs the reader immediately, within a couple of pages the ship was as real to me as the cat sitting on my lap. Everything from the period appropriate language to the workings of the ship come together to entice you back into the 1790s. I felt like all my senses were engaged from the feel of cold sea spray to the sound of a passenger throwing up over the stern rail. The discomfort and claustrophobia of being stuck on the ship, at one point for three days near the French coast thanks to the prevailing winds, is very apparent. I loved the little details like the full ‘piss-pot’ sliding up and down the deck, the cacophony of the dog barking incessantly at the turkeys they are transporting, and the bear cub that turned out to have ‘tolerable table manners’. The author also emphasises how cramped the cabins are, with Jago almost able to reach out and touch both walls. At least its his own space though and somewhere he can relax, which he does with a drop or two of laudanum to combat the stress he’s feeling from all the subterfuge.
I hadn’t read Black Drop, the first outing with Laurence Jago, but I think this stands well alone. It’s a clever idea to take your characters and put them into a totally different situation. Laurence is a likeable fellow, a disgraced foreign office clerk, with a few downfalls in his character. Not only does he like a drop of laudanum, he’s a little bit gullible when it comes to a pretty face. He is tasked with helping a civil servant who’s carrying an important treaty to the Americans, to prevent them joining the French in their war against the British. When they come up against a French warship in the channel the treaty needs to be hidden, so when a death occurs on board not only is the treaty lost, but there might be a murderer on board. There’s such a cast of characters on board: two French aristocrats escaping the changes in the run up to the revolution; an Irish actress; a man who is possibly a freed slave; a plantation owner; and a dancing bear! Most of them have a vested interest in the treaty and all of which could be a murderer. Of course Jago can’t rule out one of the crew being involved, perhaps hiding the treaty for financial gain. As for the murder, they are investigating a locked room mystery, it’s just that this room is a cabin.
I loved how the tension built as Jago tries to find the treaty and solve the murder, especially as the stakes grow ever higher and Jago himself could become a target for the murderer. I became more attached to him as the story progressed because I felt he was a bit of an innocent, totally out of his depth and with poor judgement, such as with Lizzie. He’s perpetually confused, which isn’t surprising considering his shipmates and their antics. One of the aristocrats holds a seance, the crew mates are full of maritime stories and superstitions, including the usual giant sea creatures, plus they’re eating slop and feel exhausted. I wasn’t surprised Jago’s brain was muddled!. Aside from the subterfuge and untrustworthy passengers, there’s the constant underlying tension of being unable to get off the boat and knowing that whoever committed the murder is still there too. Once they’ve left the sight of land, these misfits are stuck together for weeks. Oh, and I forgot about the pirates. This is a fabulous adventure, a murder mystery some full on comedy here and there. I’m now looking forward to going back and reading Jago’s first adventure.
I don’t really know where to start with this extraordinary novel from Sophie White. I finished it and sat in a stunned silence for while, unsure what I’d just read. I love books that stir up feelings and there were so many: empathy, sadness and curiosity soon gave way to confusion, disgust and horror. This is a psychological horror that’s not for the faint hearted, but it’s also incredibly lyrical, atmospheric and strangely beautiful. We follow teenager Aoileann and her claustrophobic life on an island somewhere off Ireland, where there are few residents, even fewer visitors and a dialect that bears little relation to the outside world. Aoileann’s whole world is the house where she helps care for ‘the thing’ a wreck of a human being who never speaks and whose every need is met by others. Our unease, already awakened by the strange atmosphere and narration, is further aroused when we find out ‘the thing’ is Aoileann’s mother. How did she end up in this state, unable to do anything for herself, suffering from bed sores and her hands bloody stumps from scratching at the floor during her occasional nocturnal rambles? Why are they caring for her in this rudimentary way? Aoileann’s grandmother has instigating the care routine, a rather Heath Robinson affair done with no occupational therapy, no medical equipment or intervention.Why does her grandmother Móraí insist that Aoileann stay indoors, away from other islanders and with reminders to never talk about ‘the thing’? My mind was filled with so many questions, and alongside them grows Aoileann’s curiosity about why she’s never been to school and why she had to fight to be allowed to swim in the sea. Most confusing of all is that Móraí spits on the ground where Aoileann has walked, like a Romany warding off the evil eye.
Sophie White sets the scene so incredibly well with three sections that encompass Aoileann’s world, entitled my mother, my home and my house. The house has a forbidding look. Where once it had windows and a door that opened onto the sea view and towards their neighbours, these apertures are now blocked with stones. This is a house and a family that doesn’t look outward or admit visitors. When Aoileann talks of her home she talks about the island, not the house or her family. She is a wild thing. She belongs to the sea. She hates the land. The cliffs and beaches are perilous and Aoileann feels unnerved when she thinks about the small part of the island she can see and the deep expanse of land ‘lurking beneath us’. Yet in the water she feels free. Despite it being a watery grave for the island’s fishermen, as she slips under it’s silken surface she feels most like herself and swims like a Selkie. Their house is at the dangerous end of the island, the last dwelling on the road that ends with a sheer drop. Her mother is another landscape with it’s own treacherous drops and cavities to swallow one whole. Until now her she has been tended to by Móraí, but with a new visitor centre being built for bemused tourists, she is needed elsewhere for her knowledge of the island’s history. Caring for ‘the thing’ will become Aoileann’s main role. She already hates the thought of it, the monotony of an endless routine, just pushing things in and clearing them out of her ruined body.
The author’s depiction of the diseased or deformed body as a horror took me in two different directions. Intellectually my mind went to Kristeva’s essay on abjection ‘The Powers of Horror’ in which she theorises on the human response to a breakdown between subject and object; in this case our revulsion for the materiality and fragility of the decaying human body, reminding us of our own mortality and eventual decay. Viscerally I felt instant nausea, a type of bodily-felt memory of when I was a carer for my terminally ill husband. In my own writing about the experience I have struggled to be this raw and truthful about how repulsive caring for bodily functions can be, because of the love and sense of protection I still feel about him fifteen years later. I didn’t want people to display those aspects of his care, both for his privacy and because I didn’t want others to remember his declining physical body rather than his spirit, that indefinable ‘thing’ that made him who he was. I knew there were things I felt revulsion about, so what would others think? Here though, there are no tender feelings to complicate the reality of her mother Aoibh’s ruin, we can experience it all. These descriptions are strangely routine, the strange system of ropes and pulleys used to hoist the body from the bed are relayed to us with a detail that’s forensic and almost boring. It’s as if the person relaying the narrative is as worn down by this daily grind as the grooves in the wooden floor made by dragging the chair back and forth from bathroom to bedroom. Then the reality of caring for someone helpless hits us at full force, as she relates how ‘opportunistic bacteria and fungi find life enough in her to breed in places where her skin pleats and gathers’. I remember the drying of these places, the careful patting dry rather than rubbing, the application of barrier cream and the red welts left if a spot was missed. The part that provoked the most visceral reaction in me was the detail of her ruined hands, with just thumbs remaining untouched, her fingers mostly ‘end just passed the knuckle. The pad of her right index finger has worn away entirely and the bone extends like a tiny pick from the flesh’.
It’s with this implement that ‘the thing’ scratches marks in the floor, marks they must sand away before her Aoileann’s father visits and finds out his wife is moving. Aoileann starts to wonder if these marks are an attempt at communication so she records them in a journal and tries to piece them together. If she can, they will be the only words she has ever heard or seen from this wreckage of a mother, created the day something terrible happened and turned her grandmother into a permanent nurse maid, drove her father from the Ireland and left Aoileann with a mother who couldn’t communicate and a grandmother who had nothing left to give. Motherhood has been a fertile ground for horror ever since Frankenstein’s monster first opened it’s yellow eye and came to life. There are parallels here between Aoileann and the monster, firstly the idea of monstrous birth and that nature/ nurture debate on whether such creatures are born or made. There are vivid descriptions of pregnancy, casting a foetus as a parasite, growing inside with the potential to drain the life out of it’s host. Also, Frankenstein only thought about the creation of his monster, not what to do with it should he ever succeed. The monster’s abandonment and confusion is akin to Aoileann, craving love from the women she lives with or her distant father, whose attention is focused solely on the thing in the bed when he visits. Was she born cursed? Or was she cursed by others; her family or the islanders? There’s an emotionally devastating paragraph where she relates her desperate need to be held by a helpless mother and a grandmother who has always held herself apart.
‘if I did pull myself to her and laid my head against her belly, she became rigid and stayed that way until I understood moved away again. When the bed-thing didn’t respond to me, it felt ok because I had never seen it use it’s arms for anything, but Móraí’s arms were capable’.
This neglect has created a strange, damaged, girl and in psychological terms it is easy to see how she becomes attached to Rachel, a visiting artist staying at the new centre and tasked to produce artworks inspired by the island. Rachel is a new mother and Aoileann is fascinated by her bond with her baby Seamus. The love doesn’t fade, even when ‘it’ shrieks constantly and doesn’t let Rachel sleep at night. Aoileann is also drawn to Rachel’s fecund, maternal, body in stark contrast to her own mother’s wasting and slackness. Strange feelings start to stir in Aoileann, feelings she’s never felt and doesn’t understand. There’s excitement at the ideas and opportunities Rachel represents and the sheer productivity of someone who can nurture both her baby and her creativity. Yet there’s also a strangely curdled mix of lust and a neglected child’s need to be nurtured and cradled in the same way Rachel cares for Seamus. I felt for Aoileann, but strangely couldn’t like her. I could see the terrible void at the her centre, created by an unspoken tragedy that befell her family, but also a total lack of love and tenderness. A tenderness that’s missing in the way they care for her mother Aoibh, ‘the bed-thing’. Normally, I’d feel sadness for this girl and her strange, bleak, emptiness. What I actually felt was that the void inside was too big, an emotionless black hole that might swallow up anyone who tries to care. As the book comes towards it’s conclusion the tension is almost unbearable, the horror intensifies and I feared for for anyone who stood between Aoileann and what she needed. Bear in mind that this may be a difficult read if you are pregnant or a new mum. For everyone I’d say this is a raw, open wound of a novel. The gaping, open mouthed cry of a soul that doesn’t even know what is missing.
Meet The Author
SOPHIE WHITE is a writer and podcaster from Dublin. Her first three books, Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown (Gill, 2016), Filter This (Hachette, 2019), and Unfiltered (Hachette, 2020), have been bestsellers and award nominees, and have been described by Marian Keyes as ‘such fun – gas, clever stuff,’ and by White’s mother as ‘very good, of its type.’ Her bestselling memoir Corpsing (Tramp Press, 2021), was shortlisted for an Irish Book Award and the prestigious Michel Déon non-fiction Prize. Sophie’s publications include a weekly column ‘Nobody Tells You’ for the Sunday Independent LIFE magazine. She has been nominated three times for Journalist of the Year at the Irish Magazine Awards. She is co-host of the chart-topping comedy podcasts, Mother of Pod and The Creep Dive. Sophie lives in Dublin with her husband and three sons.
Where I End by Sophie White published on 13 October 2022 by Tramp Press as a Flapped Trade Paperback at £11.99 Sophie White is available for interview and to write pieces For further information, please contact Helen Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org
This novel was a wonderful surprise when Sandstone Press kindly granted me a copy. We were only three weeks into January and I’d fallen immediately in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company I just kept reading all day. I then finished at 11pm was bereft because I wouldn’t be with Sybil any more. Yes, this is what happens to avid readers. We fall head over heels with a character, can’t put the book down, then suffer from book withdrawal. All day I was grumpy and reluctant to start a new book.
Sybil’s life is puttering along nicely. She has a job she enjoys at a London museum – Royal Institute of Prehistoric Studies (RIPS). There she produces learning materials, proof reads and indexes archaeological publications. She also helps people with research enquiries. She has a great boyfriend, Simon, who is a chef and likes to make her bread with obscure grains. Her quiet, settled life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from her university days. Sybil and Simon have gone ice skating, where they spot Helene Hanson, Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene did steal some ideas from Sybil’s dissertation to further her own research into the Beaker people. They try to make their way over, very unsteadily, and end up careering into Helene’s group. In Sybil’s case she’s only stopped by the wall of the rink. She has a nasty bang on the head, and from there her life seems to change path completely. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and in her capacity working for a funding body, she has taken a huge interest in RIPS. Now Sybil’s workplace will be selling Helene’s range of Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and they even welcome her onto their committee as chair of trustees. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil can’t do that. Nothing but all out revenge will satisfy how Sybil feels. She’s just got to think of a way to expose that Helene Hanson as a fraud.
First of all I want to talk about the structure of the novel. As Sybil’s life starts to unravel, so does her narration. A suggestion from a friend leads Sybil to a poetry class at her local library, so prose is broken up with poetry and very minimal notes of what Sybil has seen that she hopes to turn into haiku. Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry with a set structure of thirteen syllables over three lines in the order of 5, then 3, and then 5 syllables. Having lived next to a Japanese meditation garden for several years I started to write and teach haiku as a form of meditation. It’s a form linked to nature and is very much about capturing small moments. So if Sybil sees something that might inspire her, it makes its way into her narration. I loved this, because I enjoy poetry, but also because it broke up the prose and showed those quiet still moments where Sybil was just observing. She works with found objects – most notably a little teacup, left on a wall, that has ‘ a cup of cheer’ written on the side. There’s a very important reason for the fragmentary narration, that I won’t reveal, but I loved it and thought it was so clever. Many of my regular readers will know why I connected with this narrative voice. It could be that this is the only visible symptom of the chaos in Sybil’s mind as she goes through a massive shift – physically from one flat to another – but also a mental shift towards living alone, to coping with her nemesis constantly popping up and to the heartbreak she’s gone through. We’ve all had to start new chapters in life so her situation is easy to relate to.
Helene’s organisation brings much needed funding to the museum, but with it come obligations. As chair of the trustees, she wants to change the very structure of the building and some of the precious display spaces might be sacrificed. Her commercial enterprise, recreating Beakerware (TM) for the museum gift shop, means the shop expanding into other areas. Exhibits that have been on display for years will be moved into storage to make room and Sybil dreads Helene using Simon as the face of the range, imagining giant posters of her ex greeting her every morning at work. To add insult to injury Helene even inserts herself into Sybil’s everyday job by adding a section into her boss Raglan’s upcoming book meaning that Sybil has to index Helene’s writing. Could there be a chance here, for Sybil to gain some satisfaction? However, as Sybil’s mum hints, revenge can be more damaging to the person seeking it. This book is character driven and they’re brilliantly drawn, funny, eccentric and human. Sybil’s boss Raglan Beveridge – who she observes sounds like a cross between a knitted jumper and a hot drink – is such a lovely man, easily swayed but kind and tries to ensure that Sybil is ok. I enjoyed Bill who she meets several times across the book, in different situations. He’s calm, funny, thoughtful and shows himself to be a good friend to Sybil, even while she’s barely noticing him! Helene seems to hang over everything Sybil does, like an intimidating black cloud promising rain to come. She is a glorious villain in that she has very few redeeming features, and tramples all over Sybil’s world at home and at work. The author cleverly represents this in the very structure of RIPS. Sybil likes her slightly fusty, behind the times little museum. There’s a sense in which it is precious, that the spaces within shelter some eccentric and fragile people. They’re like little orchids, who might not thrive anywhere else. They’re introverts, so need familiarity and quiet. How will they survive Helen’s onslaught?
On the whole this was a quiet book. As I was reading it, I was totally. engrossed and the outside world was muffled for a while. It reminded me of those mornings after snowfall, when the outside world is silenced. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour. We meet her at her lowest point and while we’ve all been heartbroken, this was much more than that. I’ve been broken by life just once, but I was a like a vase, smashed into so many pieces I didn’t know if I could pull them all back together. Even if I did, I knew I would never be the same person. This is the process Sybil is working through and her grief is central to the novel. My loss felt so huge that it affected my actions – I left doors unlocked when I went out, forgot to pay bills, and started to make mistakes at work. I had always prided myself on being very ‘together’ and here I was falling apart. I discovered Japanese art that healed me in some way – it’s called Kintsugi and it’s the art of repairing broken ceramics with liquid gold or other contrasting metal. It shows the cracks, the evidence that this piece has been through something, but it’s still whole and it’s still beautiful. I feel this is Sybil’s journey and what she needed to hear was broken things can still be beautiful. This was a thoughtful novel, with serious themes but a lovely hint of humour running through. I still love it now, a couple of years later and my finished copy has pride of place on my bookshelves.
Q & A with Ruth Thomas.
1. The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line is very character driven – did the idea for the story or Sybil come first?
The setting came first, in fact. I wanted to write about a fusty old institute, and that’s how the Royal Institute for Prehistorical Studies (RIPS) began. I also wanted to write about Greenwich Park. It’s an early memory from childhood. I remember it being a beautiful but rather melancholy place.
2. The RIPS is a wonderful setting! Could you tell us a bit about it, and why you set The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line in a museum?
I love museums, especially small old-fashioned ones. They have so much character and lend themselves to description. I also wanted to tell the story of a museum artefact – how it fitted into someone’s life in the 21st century as much as the time when it was made.
3. Sybil’s voice is brilliantly handled – did you do anything in particular to pin that down when you started working on the novel, or to get in the zone each time you sat down to write?
I don’t think too much about voice before I begin – I just start with my own take on things, and after a while a character and voice shapes itself around those observations. I think the mood your character’s in has a big effect on the way they tell their story.
4. Quite early on in the book, Sybil joins ‘Poetry for the Terrified!’ at North Brixton Library – could you tell us a bit about that?
I love poetry but am a bit rubbish at writing it! I thought I’d harness that inability for Sybil too. At school, we were always supposed to find poetry profound. It can be fantastic and moving, of course, but sometimes you have to discover that in your own time.
5. One of the themes that stood out while reading The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line was grief – we’d love to hear about how you explored different aspects of grief.
I wanted Sybil’s grief to be reflected elsewhere in the book too. She thinks she’s alone with her heartbreak, but that’s one of the qualities of grief – you don’t necessarily know others are going through something similar. I also wanted to explore sorrow without writing a very sad book!
6. Was any of the office politics/social etiquette inspired by real life?
I love office politics! It’s one of the things I really missed during lockdown. Small-scale conversations and seemingly trivial things are what make me tick as a writer. At the momentI’m just having to focus a bit more on remembering the details.
Thank you so much to Sandstone Press and the SquadPod Collective for inviting me to share this lovely book with you again and thank you to Ruth Thomas for her contribution to this post.
Today as part of the Bookstagram tour for Julia Vaughan’s new novel Grave Issue, I’m spotlighting and sharing an extract from the novel.
Grave Issue is the second book in the DCI Kath Fortune series of novels and is released on 16th September 2022. This follows on from Daisy Chain, Julia’s debut novel.
“Who killed Abraham and Esther Downing in the 1970s?
What is the significance of the seven tiny skeletons unearthed in the garden of Downing’s cottage?
And why does no-one care?
As DCI Kath Fortune and her cold case team deep dive into their second investigation, they come up against a wall of silence surrounding the reclusive couple. With Kath trying to piece together the clues and keep her personal and professional relationships on track, her past comes back to haunt her with time running out on all counts.”
6th March 1963
Now it begins. New life comes again—surely my last chance. The good Lord blessed me with fertility, but my work is nearly done now, and I know that He can take away the gift of life. I must write quickly now. A spends less time in the fields now that I am close to my time. My new waters cover the stains of the seven birth waters gone before. The bare boards soak in the fluid that the child no longer needs to live inside me. The pains come now. Soon, A will come with the rope to pull the life from my body. There’s the scream of the back door. He moves about beneath me. I pray for God’s love…God’s love and forgiveness through the pain. Always and Ever.
‘What time do you call… Oh!’ Ruth halted her admonishment as Kath stepped into the room. Kath grinned and rubbed the back of her now naked neck. ‘Yeah… thought it was time for a new look.’ She threw her bag onto her desk, soaking in the admiring glances from her team. ‘Makes you look months younger,’ Shirl said, laughing and pointing at her boss. ‘You look great, Boss. Really suits you.’ Marvin continued pouring coffee into mugs as Kath sat down. ‘Well, I was looking a bit like Worzel Gummidge’s half-cousin.’ She’d made a sudden decision the day before and called up her hairdresser of many years, who always came to her house and worked her magic. She felt lighter in spirit and now in hair as she and her colleagues had wrapped up their first cold case. ‘New look for a new man.’ Ruth accepted her mug from Marvin, and Kath laughed. ‘Old man, you mean. I mean… no, not old… Oh, you all know what I’m trying to say.’
Kath had reignited her relationship with her school sweetheart, Lenny. The young love that had brought them together across algebra and Romantic poets had survived the intervening time and his marriage of many years. Now, his marriage had ended, and they were moving forward into a new era of love and companionship. Marvin pointed to a newly labelled box in the corner. ‘I’ve put all the paperwork in there. Case closed.’ Kath nodded. ‘Onwards and upwards now, guys.’ She swivelled in her chair to face Byron Lord, the civilian member of the team, who had been invaluable in their first case and in bringing together all the details to find the murderer of five-year-old Daisy Prospero. Kath felt his skills in finding hidden information secreted within the wheels of the dark web were going to continue to be key in all their cases. He had proved his worth and, as a reward, Kath had suggested that he might like to choose their next case from the hundreds stacked in the boxes lining the back wall of the office. ‘Byron, what do you think? Are you happy to choose the next case? I don’t want you to feel any pressure but I want to ensure you feel as much a part of this team as anyone else. ‘Byron nodded, his waist-length hair falling forward as he reached for a folder on his desk. He stood up and handed the manila file to Kath. He did appreciate the responsibility. He had come into an already established group of detectives who had worked together on active cases for some years. Ruth, Kath and Shirl go back many years previous, Marvin a more recent addition but still with experience under his belt. Byron’s skills as a ‘technical wizard’, as Ruth called him, had proved so important in their first case, and he felt useful and enthusiastic about his new role.
‘Have you lost weight, Byron?’ Ruth pinched taut flesh through his T-shirt, and he skipped out of her reach, smarting at the harshness of her fingers. ‘No.’ Byron sat down and hid behind his two huge monitors. ‘I’m naturally skinny. Runs in the family.’ ‘I’m naturally jealous.’ Ruth patted the spare roll of fat around her middle. ‘Look at it this way.’ Shirl stood up and took the lid off the biscuit tin next to the kettle, her finger poking around in the crumbs. ‘You’re providing a warm and comfortable home for Mr Gregg and Mr Kipling.’ ‘Cheeky cow.’ Ruth tried a tone of superiority, but she couldn’t pull it off, knowing that her over-enjoyment of certain food groups had not helped her post-menopause weight gain. ‘And you can talk… get your hand out of there.’ Shirl pulled her hand out of the tin and licked the few measly crumbs off her finger. ‘Talking of Mr Gregg…’ Kath smiled, reached into her bag and pulled a twenty pound note from her purse. She flourished it at Shirl, who grabbed it, smiling. ‘Yes, go to Greggs, get us all some sustenance.’ ‘Salad for Ruth, obviously,’ Shirl said, grabbing her coat from the back of the door. ‘Fuck off,’ Ruth replied.
‘I’ll take a look at this whilst Shirl goes into the depths of Madeley, and we’ll discuss it when she gets back.’ Kath opened the manila folder. ‘I’ve done some notes for everyone.’ Byron patted a pile of the folders on the edge of his desk. Shirl disappeared down the stairs, and there was a companionable silence as Kath skimmed through the file and Marvin and Ruth tapped away on keyboards, answering emails and starting new documents ready to receive the information Byron would input for them. Kath read quickly, nodding to herself, then grabbed her cigarettes and made her way outside. Shirl was just reversing her car out of the rear car park when Kath stopped her. Shirl opened her window. ‘Don’t get me anything; feed the others.’ Shirl looked her boss up and down. ‘This new diet of yours is paying off. New hair, pounds dropping off. What’s going on?’ Shirl knew Kath too well, and Kath was not about to reveal the secret behind her weight loss. A Volvo stopped in the road, indicating to turn in but unable to because Shirl was in the way. ‘Go.’ Kath waved her hand in apology to the PCSO trying to get into the station, who was building up a stream of traffic behind him. ‘Fine.’ Shirl was still muttering as she closed the window and reversed quickly, turning off up Madeley High Street—a short distance that would not have taken her long on foot. But Shirl didn’t walk anywhere she didn’t have to.
Kath stood back as the Volvo turned in and the traffic continued down Legges Way into the Ironbridge Gorge. She lit a cigarette and walked a little way down the path that led down from the police substation, opening onto a wild grass area with woodland fringing it, the rooftops of the Sutton Hill housing estate visible in the distance. She paced and smoked. The pounds were indeed dropping off at an amazing rate, but Kath couldn’t tell anyone it wasn’t a new diet or exercise regime but the relief in the knowing that she had truly got away with murdering an aged paedophile over twenty years ago. She had kept her secret past hidden for so many years now, and there was every reason to believe she could carry on doing so. She skirted dips in the packed earth pathway, softened by the regular nightly September rain. Byron had picked an interesting case: two bodies unearthed in Broseley, a mile up the hill from the gorge, one male and one female and seven tiny bodies buried alongside them. This was truly a cold case, the bodies of the seven infants only being found eight years later in 1983 when a developer brought in excavators to demolish a rundown cottage in a large expanse of land bordered by woodland off the main road.
Kath flicked her cigarette butt into the long grass as Shirl returned to the car park at the back of the station, brandishing bags from the bakery. The thought of the contents of the bags made Kath feel slightly queasy as she caught up with her colleague. They made their way back through the small station and up into their office, the smell of fresh pastry and meat wafting into the nostrils of Marvin, Ruth and Byron. As Shirl passed around the assorted bags, Kath sat down and patted the folder on her desk. ‘Okay, guys, our new case is an old one—eighties and beyond, I think.’ Byron looked at Kath and nodded. She knew he would have already done some work in the hope that she would agree to his choice. Marvin and Ruth chewed on their steak slices. ‘We have two adult bodies—one male, one female—both murder victims, according to the initial report, but that’s not all.’ The chewing stopped, and all eyes turned to Kath. ‘As if that isn’t enough of a tragedy, we have seven small bodies as well. Babies. Seven dead babies.’ The team looked at each other and then back at Kath as Shirl sat down in her chair, turned her back on her colleagues and blinked away tears of sorrow and memory.
The sun had finally broken through the clouds, warming the bones of the old man in the churchyard. He stretched and put his hands onto the small of his back, pressing the kinks out of his eighty-five-year-old spine. The trees surrounding the pretty Norman church were still hanging onto their leaves, reluctant to let the autumn season have its way. A pair of magpies squabbled at the top of the biggest oak tree, their harsh chatter the only sound in the quiet of the countryside. A tall man of slight build emerged from the dark interior of the church. He raised a hand in greeting to the other man, walking slowly towards him and glancing up at the sky. ‘Morning, Sam.’ He placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘God’s majesty in all His glory.’ ‘Reverend.’ Sam Williams tipped his cap, holding the rake upright, tines resting against the grass. ‘It’s looking lovely, Sam. As usual.’
Sam nodded his thanks. ‘I’ve been bringing on some roses at home, thinking of clearing that patch down there.’ He pointed to the left of the church, where some of the oldest gravestones rested. ‘Get them nettles cleared. Good soil, sun and shade. Should bring on a nice display in years to come.’ Reverend Michael Thomas smiled. ‘A rose garden. Joyous. The Lord has blessed you with a great gift. I, myself, cannot tend a houseplant.’ Sam gazed off into the distance. ‘Your gift is with people, Reverend, not plants.’ ‘You’re very kind.’ Reverend Thomas pushed his hands into the pockets of his jacket, his dog collar moving with the motion of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed several times, knowing what he was about to say would break the moment. He moved forward a few strides, coming to stand and look at the side of the church where a lone stone, small and sunken, sat apart from all other gravestones in the bucolic churchyard. The earth around the stone was barren. A few rogue blades of grass pushed valiantly through the tired earth and a single dying dandelion held onto its last few fluffy seeds. He kept his back to Sam, knowing the reaction that would come with his next words. ‘Maybe we could try some bulbs here, for next year.’ Sam approached the vicar but stayed a little way back. ‘I tell you every year, Reverend, and I’ll repeat myself once more: I’ll not tend to this.’
The vicar sighed and his shoulders dropped. ‘His sins have been forgiven by the highest order in the land. Yet you still judge him.’ Sam coughed, and a globule of phlegm sailed past Reverend Thomas’s shoulder and landed on the leaf of the dandelion. ‘The Lord can forgive whoever He likes, that’s His job and well He does it. But you know me, Reverend… you’ve known me many years. Those of us who know won’t forgive and won’t ever forget, and I’ll not plant beauty in poisoned soil. Won’t grow anyway, you know that.’ He turned and walked back to continue raking up the small leaves that drifted on the winds from across the neighbouring fields. The vicar knew Sam was right. Ever since the body had been buried, the surrounding soil seemed against supporting life. No worms turned the earth. Any seeds dropped naturally by passing birds that would have flourished anywhere else on landing would not survive in this bare section of the churchyard. A large twig had lodged itself against the gravestone, and the reverend leant forward to move it. He was unaware of the thorny spines until it was too late. He straightened up as he winced and sucked the circle of red blooming from his finger. ‘Damn you, Abraham Downing,’ he muttered.
They’d all spent twenty minutes or so quietly eating and looking over the notes Byron had provided and now Kath was eager to get into it. ‘So, thanks to Byron for the abridged notes of the case,’ Kath said, waving her copy of the paperwork. ‘We pare it down to the bare facts. Feel free to offer ideas, suggestions.’ Kath moved the front sheet further away from her face, trying not to look as though she was squinting. ‘Get some glasses, woman,’ Ruth said, trying to hold in a laugh. ‘I’m fine. Leave me and my eyes alone.’ Kath shook the paper and cleared her throat. ‘Two adults, Esther and Abraham Downing. Police were called when a dog walker discovered Abraham’s body.’ ‘Thank god for dog walkers,’ said Marvin. ‘Indeed. He was lying in front of his cottage with his head caved in,’ Kath continued. ‘A shovel, covered in blood, lay next to him. Presumed murder weapon. Police discovered a shallow grave containing the body of his wife, Esther. Cause of death: shotgun blast to the torso. Said shotgun was inside the house. Only one cartridge discharged. So, the first question is, why two different weapons?’
Shirl lay back in her office chair, almost horizontal. ‘Ruth, you’re gonna wear a hole in the carpet.’ Ruth was pacing at the other end of the office. She did her best thinking on her feet, the movement seeming to aid her brain in putting thoughts together in some sort of natural order. She liked her external world to be clean and ordered, everything in place, and now her brain was in chaos mode, trying to unscramble the information. ‘My question is, why was one body buried and the other left exposed?’ ‘Marvin.’ Kath pointed at him, and he sat up straight at his desk. ‘You’re the killer. Go.’ ‘Erm… well, I go to shoot Abraham, but Esther gets in the way.’ Kath nodded. ‘Okay. Shirl?’ Shirl tossed her papers onto her desk. ‘Why wouldn’t Abraham stop you?’ She peered at Marvin, who was tapping his pen against his forehead. ‘He can’t get to me in time.’ ‘So, why not turn the gun on Abraham and shoot him?’ Shirl asked. ‘The gun…’ Marvin struggled to focus his brain, trying to insert himself into the killer’s head. ‘Okay, how about the gun jams?’ He smiled and held out his hands. ‘So, I throw the gun to one side and pick up the nearest weapon, which is the shovel. I bash him in the head. Job done.’ ‘Maybe Abraham wasn’t there when Esther was shot,’ said Ruth, still pacing. ‘So, why didn’t he report it?’ Marvin was throwing questions out now. There was a moment of silence. ‘Okay,’ Byron said. ‘But why would you bury Esther and not Abraham?’ They all turned to Marvin for an answer. ‘I… don’t have time.’ Kath nodded. ‘It can take a while to dig even a shallow grave.’ ‘Is that the voice of experience talking?’ Ruth laughed, and her colleagues joined in. Kath feigned indignation but her insides flipped at the thought of her teammates discovering her own murderous past. She needed to bring the discussion back to the case in hand. ‘Marvin, why didn’t you bring your own weapon with you if you meant harm to them?’ The office was silent as Marvin processed the question. ‘I didn’t mean to do it; it was spur of the moment, so I used what was already there.’
Ruth nodded, flapping her own paperwork and causing a draft. ‘But why did you put the gun back inside the cottage? The shovel was outside, next to Abraham’s body, but the gun was inside.’ ‘Maybe…’ Marvin shrugged. ‘I’ve got nothing.’ Byron picked up the thread. ‘Maybe someone else killed Esther, and Marvin—sorry, the killer—found out and Abraham’s murder was something else entirely.’ Kath went back to her notes. ‘Autopsy showed Esther’s approximate day of death was the same as her husband’s.’ ‘Which was?’ Shirl asked. ‘August sixteenth 1975,’ said Byron. ‘No one heard the gunshot and thought to go and see what had happened?’ ‘Everyone’s got a shotgun in that neck of the woods, pardon the pun,’ said Kath. ‘It’s the regular form of maintenance, shooting foxes and such. All the farmers have one, and the cottage is quite remote, set back in woodland away from the main road, no other houses around.’
The cottage in question, at the heart of the case, was still standing but was a shell of a construct. With no traceable relatives, the Downing property had passed, after many years, into trust, and there was no possibility of selling the land to build on. Broseley was full of sinkholes from its mining history, and portions of woodland and road had slowly disappeared over the years as the land shifted and tree roots snaked their way through the underbelly. The cottage could just about be seen from the main road running from Broseley centre down the Ironbridge. In times of torrential, prolonged rainfall, the whole area in front of the cottage turned into a mini lake fringed by ancient trees and scrub. The cottage was still standing, despite the shifting of the land around it. The roof was all but gone, the window spaces resembling empty eye sockets. ‘You’ve picked a good one here, Byron.’ Ruth stopped pacing and perched on the edge of one of the tables in front of the window. ‘Sorry.’ ‘No, don’t apologise.’ Kath grabbed her cigarettes and stood up. ‘I think what Ruth is hinting at is that this all happened in the mid-1970s. Forensics was sketchy, nothing at all like we are now blessed with, and there is practically a whole generation that has died off, so witnesses are few and far between.’ ‘Didn’t anyone miss the Downing couple?’ Byron asked. ‘Surely someone would have said that they hadn’t seen them around and gone to check if they were okay.’ ‘Can’t answer that one,’ Kath said. She headed for the door, and Shirl got up to follow her. ‘It’s the babies,’ said Byron quietly.
Everyone turned to look at him. He lowered his head, his curtain of hair falling forward to cover his face. ‘I had a baby brother.’ No one moved, not wanting to break the spell. Byron took a deep breath and looked up. ‘I was seven, I think. So excited to have a brother. But he died when he was around three months old. Sudden infant death syndrome.’ ‘Oh, mate.’ Marvin moved to him and put a hand on his shoulder, wanting to give him a hug but feeling it was maybe too much. ‘It’s okay.’ Byron gave a weak smile. ‘Mum called him Percy. He was adorable.’ Shirl’s sudden movement made them all start, and she pushed past Kath and headed down the stairs. Kath frowned and looked over at Ruth, who shrugged and raised her eyebrows. ‘There’s no explanation for SIDS. I guess I just want to try and find out what happened to those seven little babies.’ Byron moved to the coffee machine, and Kath rubbed his back lightly as she passed him on the way to meet Shirl downstairs for a much-needed fag break. ‘We’ll find out, won’t we, guys?’ Kath looked over her shoulder at Marvin and Ruth, who muttered words of encouragement, and she continued downstairs to find Shirl smoking underneath her favourite tree next to the Madeley station.
That was the part of the case they were all not talking about: the seven baby bodies found in graves at the side of the cottage. It wasn’t until the council had released the ground many years after the deaths of the Downing couple that the graves had been unearthed. A developer had made inroads into looking at the prospect of using the land for building houses and had used a team of surveyors to look at the potential of the ground if the council was willing to let it go for the right price. The seven bodies had seemed to be a forgotten aspect as the police had concentrated their efforts on looking for Abraham and Esther’s murderer. Now, the babies were most definitely in Kath’s sight, and the team would be investigating their deaths just as thoroughly as the two adult bodies. The case wasn’t so much cold as frozen. Although the adult bodies had been discovered in 1975, the corpses of the seven babies had only been unearthed, literally, when developers had been testing the soil. The officer in charge had amazingly had the bright idea of getting a local archaeological group to take a look, realising they may have some relation to the case of the two adults found murdered on the same spot eight years earlier. The would-be archaeologists had surmised the tiny bodies might even have stretched back into the 1960s, but the focus had been on the adults, and the seven skeletons were considered a mystery not worth the time and effort of investigation.
‘You okay?’ Kath lit up and waited for Shirl to speak. Shirl kicked at the mass of leaves already forming in the September sunshine under the tree. ‘I have to show you something.’ Shirl exhaled a plume of smoke and looked at her boss and friend of many years. ‘Will you take a ride with me?’ ‘Of course, mate, whatever you need. We’ll go after we’ve finished these, okay?’ Shirl nodded, took one last drag and dropped her cigarette butt, crushing it with force into the leaves. ‘Thanks, yeah. I’ll see you up there.’ Kath looked up at the branches as Shirl went back into the station. ‘Always another mystery.’ She flicked her cigarette butt into the road and followed Shirl inside. The churchyard was quiet. A woman sat on a bench against the front wall of the church, hands clasped in her lap. The only other person was a man collecting grass cuttings from an old lawnmower. He moved to an area on the far side where the oldest graves leant at impossible angles against the low perimeter wall and deposited the grass into a boxed construction that appeared to be some kind of compost heap. Planks of new wood encased the cuttings and decaying flowers, and the elderly man stepped into the box and began trampling the contents.
Kath followed Shirl to a gravestone to the right of the lychgate. She still had no idea why Shirl had asked her to come but knew that her friend and colleague would tell her when she was ready. Shirl had seemed unsettled ever since Byron had produced the new case for the team. The gravestone was an old one, rounded at the top and bearing two names. ‘Oliver and Mary Carling,’ Kath murmured as Shirl lay a small posy of roses against the headstone. They had stopped off at a florist on the way, Kath again choosing not to ask questions. Shirl patted the grass and stepped back. ‘My grandparents,’ she said. ‘And also the resting place of Rose Thompson.’ Kath waited, watching her friend as she took deep breaths. Shirl turned to Kath and pulled her cigarettes from her pocket. Kath waited as she lit one. Shirl looked up at the clear sky and exhaled a large plume of smoke. ‘My firstborn. My daughter.’ ‘Oh, Shirl.’ Kath put her hand on Shirl’s arm, searching for the right words to comfort her friend. She had not seen this coming. ‘Tell me about her.’ ‘She breathed for two hours. Short, snuffly breaths. We were told she probably wouldn’t live very long. Heart defect.’ Shirl paused and took another deep drag of nicotine. ‘It was there on the scans. They said they couldn’t do anything but wait until she was born and then they could perhaps look at operating once she was strong enough, but even then, she might not survive the surgery.’
Shirl wasn’t known for being overly emotional and she kept it together now in the warm sunshine, with the sound of birdsong and the hum of tractors in the far fields. ‘You must have been really young.’ Kath took out her own cigarettes and lit one. Everyone knew that Shirl had four sons, two sets of twins, grown men now, who Shirl and her husband adored. Shirl nodded. ‘Eighteen. Both of us. We knew we wanted a family straight away, and I was pregnant when we got married, here in this church.’ ‘And she’s buried here?’ Kath stared at the gravestone, confused, failing to find another name on it. ‘There’s a centuries-old tradition where babies who died were often buried with a grandparent or elderly lady so they could take care of them in… Heaven, I guess, or wherever.’ Kath smoked quietly and let her friend talk, amazed at the revelation. They had known each other for over eighteen years and Kath had not had any clue. Shirl had been very careful to keep this little part of her past well and truly buried. She suspected that very few people knew this story, and she was humbled that Shirl could share it with her.
‘My family have been buried here for generations.’ Shirl pointed across the churchyard, next to the makeshift compost heap. ‘Great-great-grandparents over there, great-uncles next to them. We asked if Rose could be buried with my grandmother.’ ‘That’s lovely,’ said Kath. ‘Comforting, I should think. For all of you.’ Shirl nodded and looked at her burned down filter, flicking off the remaining ash and putting it in her pocket. ‘I understand now why this case has hit a nerve. We don’t have to carry on…’ Shirl held up her hand. ‘It’s fine. It’s time.’ She gave a weak smile. ‘It just made me sad when we started out. I mean, we were looking at the murder of two adults, then the dead babies turned up…’ She moved away, and Kath followed, keeping hold of her filter until she could flick it into the road. ‘Any time you want to talk about her, you know you can come to me now. Right?’ Shirl turned and embraced Kath. ‘Thank you. But it’s all good. I have one day a year—her birthday—when I cry and come here to talk to her, tell her about her brothers, our lives.’ Kath released her and stepped back. ‘June fourteenth. You have it off every year.’ Shirl smiled. ‘What a good detective you are.’
They got into Shirl’s car and sat looking out across the fields. ‘It’s weird how Byron picked up on this case,’ Shirl said. ‘And how we now have this strange connection. Not that he knows.’ ‘I don’t know… it might have something to do with Lane,’ Kath replied. Shirl turned in her seat to face Kath. ‘Go on.’ Lane Petreus was the psychic who had helped the team on their first case a few weeks previous. Kath had watched the interaction between her and Byron as she’d said goodbye. ‘I think Byron has some… capabilities that even he doesn’t know he has. We can’t explain it, and we don’t want to because we just accept that it is what it is, but maybe Byron was just guided somehow to pick this case.’ ‘Okay, I’ll take that. You may be right. He’s an extraordinary young man.’ Shirl paused. ‘Have you thought about inviting Lane onto this case?’ Kath had been wrestling with the idea. The team was still in its infancy, and she didn’t yet know if Lane could be a permanent part of the team, even if it were possible and it was what Lane desired. Her talent was in great demand, and Kath felt a little selfish in asking Lane to commit completely to them. ‘I don’t honestly know yet. I kind of feel we should press on as we are. If we hit a stumbling block and Lane is available to us, then maybe we can consider calling her in. What do you think?’ Shirl nodded and started the car. ‘I think your instincts are spot on, as ever. You’ll make the right call when the time comes.’ She nosed the car forward and headed back to the station, considering the idea of sharing an intimate piece of her past with the rest of the team.
Grave Issue Julia Vaughan Cahill Davis Publishing Limited
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.
I have to say this sounds like an incredible debut. It’s more of a monstrous fantasy than a spooky, Halloween type book.The story goes that, many years ago, the remote North Atlantic archipelago of St Hia was home to a monster. Her name was Thordis, and she had been adored. But when she was unable to provide her husband with a child, he sought one elsewhere – and Thordis was driven to a terrible act, before disappearing from her home. Today, lashed by storms and far from the mainland, the islands are dangerous. Many have been lost to a wild stretch of water known as the Hollow Sea.
But to one visitor, it feels like a haven. After several years trying to become a mother, Scottie has made the heart-breaking decision to leave her home and her husband in search of a fresh start. Upon her arrival on St Hia, the islanders warn her against asking questions about Thordis – but Scottie can’t resist the mystery of what happened to the woman whose story became legend.
After years of secrecy, can Scottie unravel Thordis’s story? And how will doing so change her own . . . ? I love this mix of motherhood, infertility and the monstrous. In fact monstrous births hark back to one of the most famous gothic novels; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It sounds like such an ambitious debut and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.
Billed as a horror/ thriller this is one of my favourite themes in fiction – books about books. Rare book dealer Lily Albrecht has just been given a tip-off about The Book of the Most Precious Substance, a 17th century manual rumoured to be the most powerful occult book ever written, if it really exists at all. With some of the wealthiest people in the world willing to pay Lily a fortune to track it down, she embarks on a journey from New York to New Orleans to Munich to Paris. If she finds it, Lily stands to gain more than just money. This could erase the greatest tragedy of her life. But will Lily’s quest help her find some answers, or will she lose everything in search of a ghost?
A book with all of life’s answers, if only you can find it...
I absolutely loved A.M. Shine’s last novel The Watchers and it had such a killer ending! I chose it as one of my books of the year so my hopes are high for The Creeper.
Superstitions only survive if people believe in them. Renowned academic Dr Sparling seeks help with his project on a remote Irish village. Historical researchers Ben and Chloe are thrilled to be chosen – until they arrive. The village is isolated and forgotten. There is no record of its history, its stories. There is no friendliness from the locals, only wary looks and whispers. The villagers lock down their homes at sundown. It seems a nameless fear stalks the streets, but nobody will talk – nobody except one little girl. Her words strike dread into the hearts of the newcomers. Three times you see him. Each night he comes closer. That night, Ben and Chloe see a sinister figure watching them. He is the Creeper. He is the nameless fear in the night. Stories keep him alive. And nothing will keep him away…
Last Minute Mentions
I’ve just been granted access to these spooky titles so thought I’d give you a quick preview.
I loved C.J.Cooke’s The Lighthouse Witches, an interesting mix of isolated Scottish location, a history of witches, ghostly apparitions, disappearances and time travel. The Ghost Woods sounds downright spooky.
In the midst of the woods stands a house called Lichen Hall. Even the name starts to conjure up an atmosphere of decay. This place is shrouded in folklore – old stories of ghosts, of witches, of a child who is not quite a child. Now the woods are creeping closer, and something has been unleashed. Pearl Gorham arrives in 1965, one of a string of young women sent to Lichen Hall to give birth. And she soon suspects the proprietors are hiding something. Then she meets the mysterious mother and young boy who live in the grounds – and together they begin to unpick the secrets of this place. As the truth comes to the surface and the darkness moves in, Pearl must rethink everything she knew – and risk what she holds most dear. This sounds like a great mix of the supernatural and women’s history.
ELSPETH NEEDS A MONSTER. THE MONSTER MIGHT BE HER.
One Dark Window is billed as a gothic fantasy romance. An ancient, mercurial spirit is trapped inside Elspeth Spindle’s head – she calls him the Nightmare. He protects her. He keeps her secrets. But nothing comes for free, especially magic. When Elspeth meets a mysterious highwayman on the forest road, she is thrust into a world of shadow and deception. Together, they embark on a dangerous quest to cure the town of Blunder from the dark magic infecting it. As the stakes heighten and their undeniable attraction intensifies, Elspeth is forced to face her darkest secret yet: the Nightmare is slowly, darkly, taking over her mind. And she might not be able to stop him.
I’m so excited to be on the blog tour for this gothic mystery novel, with such a lush cover I want to frame it.
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. Full of my favourite themes and brimming with all things gothic, this is surely an autumn must—read.
How good do all these picks sound? Look out next Sunday for my look at Historical Fiction and Romance.
You have to indulge me with this review, because it’s quite a personal response to Kirsten Miller’s novel. It had to be personal, because as a peri-menopausal woman, I fell in love with the idea of a latent power that women can tap into at an age when we are often dismissed as ‘past it’. An age I’ve now reached. ‘The Change’ was a whispered word in my family. At my Grandma’s house there was a clear dividing line at the front door, right into the living room for my Grandad and left into the dining room for my Grandma. I was the only granddaughter and I did spend a lot of time with Grandad, but the other room with my two aunties, Grandma and Mum was where secret feminine conversations took place. ‘The Change’ was first overheard when I was just getting used to my periods starting. Older family members were struggling with the symptoms of menopause. Now, thirty years later I’m experiencing symptoms of peri-menopause and I realise we never really had full and frank conversations about it. Starting my periods was traumatic. I was constantly worried about leaking through my clothes, particularly at school. I was embarrassed that sometimes I had to take my bag to the toilet with me from the classroom and I was mortified that to get out of swimming I had to shout out, in front of everyone, that I had my period.
I’d started my period in my first week of secondary school, in the same summer that I broke my back so I went through an enormous amount of change. I felt tied down and I certainly wasn’t the same tree climbing, dog walking tomboy I had been up till now. I’m thinking that menopause is going to have another seismic effect. I’m already finding it difficult to contain symptoms like sweating and hair loss, but I don’t want to lose myself. I love that menopause is starting to be talked about thanks to media celebrities like Davina McCall and I’m trying to be open and honest talking about my experiences with friends. So I was really up for reading a book about women who are moving towards middle age. Women become more interesting as they get older, more confident and full of wisdom and experience. I certainly found that in my friends and in the characters of this book who I fell immediately in love with. They are definitely meant to be a trio.
Nessa: The Seeker Jo: The Protector Harriett: The Punisher
Each woman finds herself bestowed with incredible powers. When Nessa is widowed and her daughters leave for college, she’s left alone in her house near the ocean. Finally, she has time and quiet hours to herself, and she hears voices belonging to the dead – who will only speak to her. They’ve possibly always been there, but she’s been too busy with her family’s needs to hear them. Harriett is almost fifty, her marriage and career have imploded, and she hasn’t left her house in months. Her house was the envy of the neighbourhood and graced the cover of magazines, but now it’s overgrown with incredible plants. Harriett realises that her life is far from over – in fact, she’s undergone a stunning metamorphosis.
Jo has spent thirty years at war with her body. The rage that arrived with menopause felt like the last straw – until she discovers she’s able to channel it, but needs to be able to control it too. The trio are guided by voices only Nessa can hear and discover the abandoned body of a teenage girl. The police have already written off the victim. But these women have not. Their own investigations lead them to more bodies and a world of wealth where the rules don’t apply – and the realisation that laws are designed to protect villains, not the vulnerable.So it’s up to these three women to avenge the innocent, and punish the guilty…
The time has come to embrace The Change.
I loved these women, they were powerful, sexy, sassy and deeply committed to their fellow women – dead or alive. Some might call them witches, but isn’t that a man’s name for a woman who won’t be controlled? Harriett is wonderful! She’s unapologetically sexy and partakes of beautiful men or women when she fancies, but doesn’t feel a need to be attached. She lets her garden run riot and has her own methods for dealing with those who complain. I loved her fearlessness and sense of humour. Nessa has a gift that’s past down through the generations, but has laid dormant till now. I loved that Nessa’s situation is a positive spin on the empty nest, although her gift is not one most people would want. I loved her compassion for the girls she sees and her drive to help, to the extent of taking a ghost home with her. Jo’s gift felt like the embodiment of the rage a lot of women feel about the injustices of the world we live in. The author tells us tales about what women face every day: husbands who control their lives; young girls preyed on by their sport’s coach; vibrant and intelligent women overlooked for promotion; creative women having their ideas stolen by men; women excluded from the gent’s club where a group of millionaire men rule the world. These women are determined to speak out, be open about what women’s lives are like and educate other women to speak their truth and feel their power. It’s inspiring and exhilarating.
The mystery of the serial killer is compelling and really keeps you reading. I kept picking this up in every spare moment, wanting to spend time with these women and see where their investigations lead. I really loved the clever way the author took on the concept of serial killer stories while writing one. She addresses the popularity of crime thrillers and true crime podcasts and how they appeal to men. They’re written as if the victims are expendable and the killers get special nicknames as if they are comic book villains. I’ve often thought this about the Yorkshire Ripper. He’s notorious, but I couldn’t tell you a single name of his victims. There is a truth about the world right at the heart of her story. It comes to light when the women involve the police. There are women in the world who matter and there are others who are worthless, both to law enforcement and to the powerful men encountered in this book. They can be dismissed, because they’re sex workers, or drug addicts, or live in poverty. The Yorkshire Ripper’s first victims were possibly sex workers, then a young girl was attacked after walking home from a night out. She was perceived, by law enforcement and the media, as coming from a decent family. Media headlines screamed that the Ripper had taken his first ‘innocent’ victim. The implication being that the other victims deserved their fate. The author really got this message across, but without losing any of the power, the tension or the desperate need to see the killer caught. Finally, I have to say something about magic realism and being a huge fan of Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Alice Hoffman, I’ve been reading some of the best writers in the genre. Miller’s story is so strong and the characters so well constructed, that I never felt a sense of disbelief. I have quite a collection of magic realism starting with my teenage love for Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil and Angela Carter’s short stories. This book can easily sit next to my favourites. It really is that good.
Meet The Author
Kirsten Miller grew up in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. At seventeen, she hit the road and moved to New York City, where she lives to this day. Kirsten’s first adult novel, The Change, is a feel good feminist revenge fantasy–with witches. The Change is a Good Morning America Book Club pick for May 2022. Kirsten also the author of over a dozen middle grade and YA novels, including the acclaimed Kiki Strike books, which tell the tale of the delinquent girl geniuses who keep Manhattan safe, and How to Lead a Life of Crime. She is not the Kirsten Miller who wrote All That Is Left (which appears on the list of the books she’s written), but she assumes that Kirsten is lovely and talented.
I’m a big fan of historical fiction and Suzanne Fortin cemented her place as an author to look out for when I read her debut novel The Forgotten Life of Arthur Pettinger. Her combination of time-slip narrative, history and romance is irresistible. I’m interested in the stories people don’t tell us about themselves and the years spent at war often feel like a parallel dimension where people and stories were lost. People died, became displaced, or were simply too traumatised to relive the events of those years. For many, their ordinary every day lives stopped in 1939 and they lived a completely different life away from friends and family, with a new occupation and a changing sense of self. They could act completely out of character in the high pressure of combat or became worn down by the difficulties of being a civilian in a bombed city, living on rations and making new friendships with the unlikeliest people.To then return and pack everything that’s happened neatly away to restart where you left off seems impossible, but many people did. How often do we hear people say that their father or grandfather never talked about the war? My own father-in-law had been sent to a Russian work camp in Siberia, because his father was in the military. His brother didn’t survive, but he and his Mum escaped and lived in a forest camp with the Polish resistance, gradually walking their way down through the Middle East, across Northern Africa and into Europe and eventually England. I would never have known this incredible story if I hadn’t seen a photo of him as a boy, standing in front of the pyramids. My mother-in-law was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto who escaped through the sewer system. Yet neither dwelled on that life, preferring to look forward where life was less painful. Suzanne’s novels fill that gap, that silence where someone’s experience is perhaps too painful to share. She writes these stories that are often complex and present something new about the war, and about people, that I hand’s thought of before.
It just happened that I’d read Ruth Druart’s The Last Hours in Paris and Joanna Quinn’s The Whalebone Theatre very recently, both of which included characters who were enemy prisoners of war, brought to English camps, but often released into the community to help out farmers or do other work that helped the Allied war effort. Some of these men waited up to three years after the war ended to be returned to their homeland and working within communities led to friendships and relationships with some British people. In Fortin’s latest novel we are taken to Somerset in 2022. Telton Hall is the home of Jack Hartwell, a farmer in his eighties, trying to come to terms with the compulsory purchase of his land and home. Rhoda Campbell is a stained glass expert and restorer, visiting to look at a stained glass window designed by POW Paulo Sartori. She works for a museum that conserves old historic buildings and they hope to move the whole chapel and window to their site. However she finds Jack blocking the driveway in his tractor, in the hope of delaying a little bit longer. It takes Rhoda’s charm and the arrival of his son Nate to get things moving again. As the three of them look at the chapel, Jack’s terrier disappears down a gap between flagstones. Rhoda lays on her front to see where he’s gone and makes a terrible discovery, human bones buried underneath the flagstones. This puts in place a chain of events that reaches all the way back to WW2 and has an effect on Rhoda whose own brother is a missing person.
The story alternates between 2022 with Rhoda’s urge to investigate the mystery she’s uncovered and back to the end of WWII when a young woman called Alice Renshaw finds herself pregnant to an American airman, Brett. As she prepares to marry Brett at the village church, Alice is so happy even though it’s an uncertain future she faces, possibly over in America. However, Brett doesn’t turn up at the church and thanks to his father’s connections he is transferred out of the country immediately. Alice is heartbroken. A few weeks later she’s at Telton Hall, where Louise Hartwell takes on young girls ‘in trouble’ and finds homes for their babies with couples who can’t have children. Louise is also still running the farm, with the help of Jack who is ten, his step-brother Billy, who needs to walk with a stick after being wounded. There are also two Italian POW’s helping with the produce gardens, one of whom is Paolo Sartori. Every time the book delves into the past we hear a little more about the story of Telton Hall, the diverse characters staying there and the connections they form with each other. Each time we go back to WW2, we’re getting closer to the answers and the tension builds, while in the present those that would like Rhoda silenced, come ever closer.
I was gripped by the drama of Telton Hall in the 1930’s and desperate for the hateful Billy to get his just desserts before he can permanently hurt anyone. In the present I was convinced I wouldn’t like the answers to the mystery. I was worried that it would have an impact on characters I’d become attached to, who might have only acted badly due to the extreme circumstances. The ending was a surprise and gave me the answers, as well as putting a smile on my face knowing that there was a happy ending for some. I loved Alice’s ability to trust and love after her experience with Brett. I felt the author really captured that sense of displacement and dislocation that many felt during the war, their separation from ‘normal’ life and the way their actions within that time had repercussions for years to come. Ultimately, the story shows us the amazing ability we humans have to heal, our incredible resilience and capacity to love. This could manifest in holding on to a love that won’t die or in finding we have an endless capacity of love, even when our experiences have shown us a depth of loss that seems insurmountable. For Rhoda it means the possibility of letting love in, despite having no blue print of family life from her own childhood. This book is heartfelt and moving, showing us that like Rhoda’s stained glass we are made up of many parts, each experience and influence adding together to make something uniquely beautiful.
Published on 22nd July by Aria
Meet the Author
Suzanne writes historical fiction, predominantly dual timeline and set in France. Her books feature courageous women in extraordinary circumstances with love and family at the heart of all the stories.
Suzanne also writes mystery and suspense as Sue Fortin where she is a USA Today bestseller and Amazon UK #1 and Amazon US #3 bestseller. She has sold over a million copies of her books and been translated into multiple languages.