Published by Headline,
8 July 2021.
ISBN: 978-1-4722-7064-1 (HB)
This is the eighth of this writer’s popular Inspector Ben Ross stories, set in Victorian England, not in London as with most other titles in the series but the New Forest near the sea. Lizzie Ross, Ben’s wife, somewhat against her will, accepts an invitation, couched almost as a demand to accompany her former employer, Mrs Julia Parry, to a secluded house in the New Forest. When the series began, Lizzie, then a young single woman without an income of her own, had become Mrs (Aunt) Parry’s lady’s companion, then virtually the only occupation, apart from governessing, open to young women of good birth but without means. Since Lizzie left Aunt Parry’s employment to marry Ben Ross of the newly-formed detective branch of New Scotland Yard, Aunt Parry has been through a number of companions but they have all fallen short, one way or another, of expectations, and now, that Aunt Parry is about to take a brief holiday in a suitable house in the New Forest, she needs a companion to help her pass the time. Who better than Lizzie Ross? Not that Lizzie is at all anxious to go but Aunt Parry’s overwhelming personality sweeps all before her. Moreover, Ben feels that Lizzie is a bit rundown and a change of scenery and some fresh country air will do her a world of good. And Aunt Parry is sure that there will be no repetition of events such as those in an earlier title in the series, A Mortal Curiosity, also set in the New Forest, when Lizzie had found herself caught up in investigating a murder.
So, Aunt Parry and Lizzie, and Aunt Parry’s lady’s maid set off by train for the South Coast, along with enough of Aunt Parry’s clothes etc to fill a warehouse and Lizzie’s more modest requirements. The house where they are to stay is The Old Excise House, formerly offices and living accommodation for customs officers, now adapted as a residence, but is somewhat too old fashioned for Aunt Parry’s tastes. However, the housekeeper, Mrs Dennis, is an excellent cook, assisted by her daughter Jessie (Mr Dennis is the gardener) and this helps to mollify aunt Parry. Even more so does the invitation she and Lizzie have received from the local landowner, Sir Henry Meager, whose coachman Tizard has already met Aunt Parry and Lizzie at the railway station and driven them to their destination.
The invitation is for dinner the following night; Aunt Parry is pleased at the prospect, but Lizzie, foreseeing a boring evening, is not. During the day Lizzie sets off to walk to the nearby beach and then finds herself in the village. And there she encounters two strange old women, Cora and Tibby Dawlish, who seem to know a great deal about Lizzie: They know she has previously been to the area and that she is married to a policeman, but how do they know it was the policeman who had solved the previous mystery? And why does one of them call out that Lizzie had brought death once before and will bring it again?
Lizzie says none of this to Aunt Parry at the dinner party that evening. Aunt Parry is in her element, in the company of those whom she sees as being her social equals, not just Sir Henry but his heir, his nephew, Andrew Beresford, and Andrew’s wife Agnes, although less so his estate manager Robert Harcourt. Aunt Parry is particularly charmed by Sir Henry’s old-fashioned courtly manner, but Lizzie feels that there is something cold and unattractive about him.
But Aunt Parry’s expectations of elegant socialising in the company of the local gentry are confounded when the news come the next morning that Sir Henry has been found dead in his bed from a bullet to the head. Suicide is ruled out; Sir Henry had no reason to kill himself. In the ensuing investigation, which Ben is brought down from London to lead, Lizzie also plays a part.
As one expects in novels by this author, the array of
characters is particularly memorable, especially Aunt Parry who is a monstrous
creation in the tradition of Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Burgh (Pride and Prejudice) and Oscar Wilde’s
Lady Bracknell (The Importance of Being
Earnest). Totally self-centred and totally convinced of the rightness of
her opinions, Lizzie should be grateful that for the time being Aunt Parry has
not yet discovered such matters as the campaign for female suffrage. And as the
investigation proceeds defects in Sir Henry’s character are revealed,
particularly his exploitation of young and vulnerable women in lower ranks of
society. Indeed. the rigid stratification of society is a vital factor in this
story which this author skilfully reveals.
Reviewer: Radmila May
Ann Granger was born in Portsmouth where she was a pupil at the then Northern Grammar School for Girls and went from there to London University where she achieved a BA in Modern Languages (French with German). After a period spent first teaching English in France and then working in the Visa Section of British Embassies around the world. She met her husband, who was also working for the British Embassy, in Prague, and together they received postings to places as far apart as Munich and Lusaka. She is the author of the Mitchell and Markby Mysteries, the Fran Varady series and more recently the Lizzie Martin mystery series. She lives in Bicester, near Oxford.
Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.