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Friday 22 March 2024

‘The Legacy of Foulstone Manor’ by J. C. Briggs

Published by The Sapere Books,
13 February 2024.
ISBN: 978-0-85495235-9 (PB)

After having enjoyed the most recent novels in Briggs’s series involving Charles Dickens and Victorian London, I was very interested to receive The Legacy of Foulstone Manor, what I assume is a stand-alone story set on the edge of the Lake District where the author lives.

Foulstone Manor is a now abandoned house inherited by Joan Goss’s father, Gerard Revell, in the 1920s from the father of a close friend who died alongside him during the First World War in particularly distressing circumstances. Joan was left Foulstone by her father. She was brought up by her adoptive parents after her mother died in childbirth and her father thereafter showed no interest in her. He committed suicide a few years later. The novel is set in 1970 and Joan, by now middle-aged and relatively reclusive (occasionally she laments her ‘wasted life’), lives in a cottage on the edge of the house’s land. She has only vague memories of her childhood, but what she remembers haunts her as do the rumours of her family history.

When Joan’s goddaughter Amanda comes to stay in the adjacent cottage before beginning her studies at Lancaster University, Joan is encouraged to delve into her past. Amanda succeeds in persuading her to enter decaying Foulstone and look for answers. What was the truth of her parent’s marriage? What really happened to her mother? Joan’s father was a poet who was deeply affected by his experiences in the First World War, but was that the reason he committed suicide? Why was Joan never told the truth about her childhood?

Joan’s mother’s diary is found and brought to life by flashbacks to 1919 and the early 1920s. The diary answers some questions but raises many others. Why did Gerard Revell disappear to London from time to time? Was the person half-remembered in the garden years ago real, and if so, who was he? Who is telling the truth, and are people who they claim to be? A missing soldier lurks in the background. The wider implications of adoption are also an issue as Joan and Amanda look into Joan’s adoptive parents. The smell of damp in Foulstone pervades everything and haunts Joan. Is there any significance in that? Amanda and Joan track down people who knew Joan’s parents and others connected to them, and this leads the pair to leave Foulstone now and then to visit places such as London to pursue their investigation.

This is a very atmospheric novel with a well-paced and intriguing plot. It is also a very intelligent book, with mentions of poetry (Wilfred Owen, for instance) and Shakespeare, although this learning is worn lightly. It is always fascinating and at times touching, with hints of menace now and then, and it reaches an entirely plausible conclusion. As always with Briggs’s work, there are informative appendices of Historical Notes and A Note to the Reader.

The Legacy of Foulstone Manor is highly recommended.
Reviewer: David Whittle 

J. C. Briggs taught English for many years in schools in Cheshire, Hong Kong, and Lancashire. She now lives in a cottage by a river in Cumbria with a view of the Howgill Fells and a lot of sheep, though it is the streets of Victorian London that are mostly in her mind when she is writing about Charles Dickens as a detective. There are eleven novels in the series so far, published by Sapere Books. The latest, The Jaggard Case, came out in October 2022. Number eleven, The Waxwork Man, comes out on September 15th. Another novel will come out at the end of 2023. This is a new departure, a novel about an empty house called Foulstone in the old county of Westmorland, a house with secrets kept since the First World War. She was Vice Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association (2018-2022), is still a board member of the CWA, a member of Historical Writers’ Association, the Dickens Fellowship, The Society of Authors, and a trustee of Sedbergh Book Town.

David Whittle is firstly a musician (he is an organist and was Director of Music at Leicester Grammar School for over 30 years) but has always enjoyed crime fiction. This led him to write a biography of the composer Bruce Montgomery who is better known to lovers of crime fiction as Edmund Crispin, about whom he gives talks now and then. He is currently convenor of the East Midlands Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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