Publication Date: May 29, 2014
Pages: 82 pages
Summary: It is 1929. Asharton Manor stands alone in the middle of a pine forest, once the place where ancient pagan ceremonies were undertaken in honour of the goddess Astarte. The Manor is one of the most beautiful stately homes in the West Country and seems like a palace to Joan Hart, newly arrived from London to take up a servant’s position as the head kitchen maid. Getting to grips with her new role and with her fellow workers, Joan is kept busy, but not too busy to notice that the glittering surface of life at the Manor might be hiding some dark secrets. The beautiful and wealthy mistress of the house, Delphine Denford, keeps falling ill but why? Confiding her thoughts to her friend and fellow housemaid, feisty Verity Hunter, Joan is unsure of what exactly is making her uneasy, but then Delphine Denford dies…
Armed only with their own good sense and quick thinking, Joan and Verity must pit their wits against a cunning murderer in order to bring them to justice.
Short Version: Captures the atmosphere and authentic little details of writers like Agatha Christie. However, the actual mystery is a little too straightforward to make this a compelling whodunit.
Long Version: Did I just put Celina Grace in the same category as the great Agatha Christie? I sure did. And I love Agatha Christie.
The real standout of this novel is the compelling narrator and the little details of life “in service” in the late 1920s. Grace must have seriously done her homework – that or she’s a time-traveller. I’m particularly caught up on details such as the lumpy mattresses in the maid’s bedroom, and one paragraph in which Joan describes clarifying soup with grease-proof paper. This book really feels authentic, as if it were actually written in the 1920s.
Joan Hart is a great character, one I was happy to stick with for the first-person narrative. There’s an admirable amount of retraint in her depiction : she’s genuinely plain-looking and genuinely of average intelligence, even if her friend Verity is a tad more glamorous. (As an aside, I flinched at Verity’s being described as ‘feisty’ in the production description. When was the last time you saw a male character described as ‘feisty’? A rant for another time).
In the confines of how short this work is, the pacing is mostly excellent. The first few pages are admittedly slow as we get little else but Joan gushing about her new employers, but that was soon over. Once Mrs Denford shows up dead, it becomes a page-turner.
The summary warns that this is a novella-length piece of around 20,000 words. The length of it isn’t exactly the problem – in fact, it made a great treat for a long read before bed. But what brought it down “one star” (if I used such a thing on this blog, which I don’t), is that the actual mystery side of it lacked a lot of, well, mystery.
The way in which Joan and Verity find out the identity of Delphine Denford’s murder is laid out step-by-step: they quickly and easily collect evidence (one crucial part of which Joan hides from the reader until the last moment), immediately draw correct conclusions from the evidence, go to the police, are instantly believed, and watch the guilty party arrested and taken away.
Fans of the whodunits of people like Agatha Christie will notice some crucial elements to a good case are missing – multiple suspects with multiple motives and mixed alibis, irrelevant or falsely incriminating evidence, a spanner thrown in the works that changes the course of the investigation (usually a second corpse showing up), etc. This plot is a straight road, with no real twists and turns. There is, to be fair, a minor mystery as to what shocking discovery the victim made just before death and how this led to her murder, but that was about it.
While I can’t lie and say the above didn’t take a fair chunk out of my reading enjoyment, there’s loads to like about the first in this series, particularly for devotees of parlour-game murder mysteries and Downton Abbey-like settings. A nice bed-time treat and worth a read.