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Saturday 18 November 2023

‘The Dead Hand’ by Judith Cutler

Published by Severn House,
7 November 2023.
ISBN: 978-1-44831132-3 (HB)

It is June 1861 and Thorncroft Estate is buzzing with a substantial group of archaeologists and their assistants.  The visitors, led by Sir Francis Palmer, are investigating Roman remains unearthed during building works.  Their presence, however, is not welcomed by all the local inhabitants.  This is due, in no small measure, to the conflicting demands of performing an archaeological excavation whilst the estate’s farm workers are preparing for harvest time. 

Meanwhile, Thorncroft House is hosting Professor Marchbanks who has been brought in to catalogue his late Lordship’s beloved and extensive library.  Sadly, the deceased aristocrat’s son, young Lord Croft, suffers from mental illness and is unable to assume the responsibilities bequeathed to him.  His duties have therefore fallen to Matthew Rowsley, interim estate manager, and his wife Harriet, housekeeper par excellence. A board of trustees with responsibility for the estate, have established and endorsed these roles until young Lord Croft recovers or an alternative heir can be found. 

The recent death of Lady Croft has increased Harriet’s workload significantly.  She is now the lady of the house and shoulders all the concerns that accompany that honour.  To help ease the burden, an assistant housekeeper, Mrs Briggs, has been employed on a month’s trial.  Sadly, Briggs’ inflexible ways soon prove to be more trouble than they are worth.  She disapproves of the unconventional Thorncroft household, and Harriet’s position in it, with as much venom as the socially superior Professor and his wife.  When Briggs allows the Marchbanks to work in the library without supervision against Harriet’s explicit instructions, things come to a head. 

These issues, though irritating, pale into insignificance when the Rowsleys begin to suspect that someone is deliberately tampering with some works of art that hang in the corridors of the stately building.  Their misgivings are realised when a heavy picture falls from the wall, injuring the young maid who was dusting it.  A general feeling of mistrust and anxiety overshadows the estate and worsens still further when the body of a local labourer is found.  When accidental death is ruled out, another worker is detained on suspicion of murder in what seems to be an open and shut case.  Harriet and Matthew, however, know the people of their village and are not convinced.  As they investigate the activities of the outsiders in their midst, new evidence emerges that puts into doubt the swift arrest of the initial suspect.  It is a welcome development, but one that puts the Rowsleys and their friends in jeopardy.

Judith Cutler’s prose is a delight in this, the fifth intriguing murder mystery featuring Matthew and Harriet Rowsley.  Their respective first person narratives enrich a plot that is both complex and compelling.  Historical details are, as always, accurate, informative and unobtrusive as the story is revealed against the backdrop of Victorian England and its rigid class system.  Characterization is careful and intricate, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of each individual as the tale unfolds.

With The Dead Hand Judith Cutler has created another thoroughly enjoyable Victorian crime novel.  It is the fifth in the Harriet and Matthew Rowsley series and works perfectly as a standalone.  The mystery is suffused with gripping, often playful, twists and turns as it reaches its climax, and the ending is deliciously unexpected.  Highly recommended.

Reviewer: Dot Marshall-Gent

Judith Cutler was born in the Black Country, just outside Birmingham, later moving to the Birmingham suburb of Harborne. Judith started writing while she was at the then Oldbury Grammar School, winning the Critical Quarterly Short Story prize with the second story she wrote. She subsequently read English at university. It was an attack of chickenpox caught from her son that kick-started her writing career. One way of dealing with the itch was to hold a pencil in one hand, a block of paper in the other - and so she wrote her first novel. This eventually appeared in a much-revised version as Coming Alive, published by Severn House. Judith has seven series. The first two featured amateur sleuth Sophie Rivers (10 books) and Detective Sergeant Kate Power (6 Books). Then came Josie Wells, a middle-aged woman with a quick tongue, and a love of good food, there are two books, The Food Detective and The Chinese Takeout. The Lina Townsend books are set in the world of antiques and there are seven books in this series. There are three books featuring Tobias Campion set in the Regency period, and her series featuring Chief Superintendent Fran Harman (6 books), and Jodie Welsh, Rector’s wife and amateur sleuth. Her more recently a series feature a head teacher Jane Cowan (3 books). Judith has also written three standalone’s Staging Death, Scar Tissue, and Death In Elysium. Her new series is set in Victorian times featuring Matthew Rowsley. There are three books in this series.

Dot Marshall-Gent
worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.

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