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Friday 5 July 2024

‘The Curse of Penryth Hall’ by Jess Armstrong

Published by Allison & Busby,
20 June 2024.
ISBN: 978-0-7490-3148-0 (HB)

It is 1922 and the trauma of the Great War is still distorting the lives of many of its survivors. American heiress Ruby Vaughan has tried to rebuild her life and is running a rare bookshop in Exeter with the shop’s owner, octogenarian Mr Owen. The two are fond of each other, united by the endurance of loss: Ruby’s parents and sister were drowned when the Lusitania was sunk, and Mr Owen’s sons were killed in the war. Ruby has another more recent loss, which she never speaks of and tries not to think about. Her beloved friend, Tamsyn, rejected the plans Ruby had made for spending their future together. Instead, Tamsyn married a baronet, Sir Edward Chenowyth, and has gone to live with him at Penryth Hall in rural Cornwall. Ruby was heartbroken but she refuses to look back and drowns her grief in large quantities of gin and wild extravagant parties.

Ruby is used to delivering book consignments for Mr Owen but she is horrified when he asks her to take a box of books to a man living in the Cornish village of Lothlel Green, which is situated in close proximity to Penryth Hall. She protests but Mr Owen insists that Ruan Kivell needs the books straight away. When Ruby accepts the task, she knows that she will have to visit Tamsyn, who had written to her eighteen months ago. In this letter Tamsyn admitted that she had made a mistake in marrying Edward and claims that Penryth Hall is cursed. Ruby had ignored this plea, but she cannot be so close to Penryth Hall without responding to the appeal for help from the girl she had loved.

When Ruby visits Penryth Hall she is appalled by how much Tamsyn has changed. She has become a ghostly shadow of the vibrant young woman she had been, and her only joy is her young son, Jori. Edward is even more loathsome and dictatorial than Ruby remembered him, and she is determined to discover what he is doing to Tamsyn and whether he is physically harming his wife. However, during the night Ruby is tortured by bad dreams which are broken by the tolling of Penryth’s bells. When Ruby investigates, she encounters the Hall’s housekeeper, Mrs Penrose, and accompanies her to discover Edward lying in the orchard, brutally murdered.

To Ruby’s astonishment, Mrs Penrose not only sends for the local policeman but also for Ruan Kivell, the Pellar. At this point Ruby has no idea what a Pellar is, although she realises that he has great status and authority amongst the villagers. She discovers that the Pellar is a combination of herbalist, healer and witch. Mrs Penrose and most of the other people in the village believe that Sir Edward was killed by the same curse that killed his uncle and aunt years before and they are convinced that the Pellar is the only person who can break the curse before it claims more victims. Ruby does not believe in curses or witch powers, but she feels strangely drawn to the enigmatic Ruan.

Despite the pain that Tamsyn has caused her, Ruby is determined to prevent Tamsyn and Jori from becoming the next victims, whether the violence is due to a curse or, as Ruby believes, the acts of an evil person. Ruby is a person who has always taken risks and not counted the cost. In the war she had driven an ambulance to rescue wounded soldiers from the most isolated first aid posts during heavy shelling, regardless of the danger to her own life. Now she joins forces with Ruan Kivell and brings the same persistence and wild courage to her quest to save her friend and discover the truth, but soon it becomes evident that Ruby herself may be the target, whether of human killer or supernatural curse, and more than once she comes perilously close to death.

The Curse of Penryth Hall is the first book in the series featuring Ruby Vaughan. It is a fascinating debut with a protagonist who is flawed but also courageous and generous hearted. It has a compelling plot that combines mystery with a strong vein of Gothic horror and is a superb depiction of a rural community that is dominated by superstition in a way that compromises the actions of otherwise decent people.

The Curse of Penryth Hall is a page turner which I wholeheartedly recommend, and I look forward to the next book in the series.
Reviewer: Carol Westron

Jess Armstrong's debut novel The Curse of Penryth Hall won the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur First Crime Novel Competition. She has a masters degree in American History but prefers writing about imaginary people to the real thing. Jess lives in New Orleans with her historian husband. When she's not working on her next project, she's probably thinking about cheese, baking, tweeting or some combination of the above. 

Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 8 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. interview
To read a review of Carol latest book click on the title
Death and the Dancing Snowman 

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