1919, the village of Wenfield in Derbyshire is much like everywhere else in the country. The young men of the village are either dead, slain on the battlefields of France, or returned, a shadow of their former selves, both physically and mentally. And the people who stayed at home are shattered by their losses. And now the shadow of influenza is threatening to take many more lives…
But something darker is stalking Wenfield. Myrtle Bligh receives a message from her sweetheart, believed lost in the War.
“I am alive. Meet me tonight in Pooley Woods. I’m in trouble so don’t tell anyone.”
The next day, Myrtle is found dead, her mouth cut into a wide smile and a dove inserted into it. Rumours persist of a soldier seen stalking the woods that night. Did someone come back from the battlefield? As another identical death occurs, it seems that the horrors of war are far from over…
Regular readers of the blog will know that I regularly sing Kate Ellis’ praises. Author of the (currently) twenty strong Wesley Peterson series – book 21, The Mermaid’s Scream, is out in February – and the five Joe Plantagenate books, this is a departure as her first non-series novel in a long time. Which reminds me, I must get round to reading The Devil’s Priest at some point. Well, I say this is non-series, it’s potentially the first in a series. No idea, really, but part of me hopes so.
Kate brings the village of Wenfield vividly to life, with the pain from both the past and present events resonating through the events being described. Between the wars is becoming a popular setting for mystery fiction – Jacqueline Windspear, Frances Brody, Carola Dunn, for example – but as far as I can tell, this is the one set closest to the end of the war. The repercussions of the events during the war, both at home and abroad, feel more immediate here than in other books. It’s the small details that make it – things that I certainly wasn’t aware of. For example, soldiers who were disfigured were given painted facemasks to make them more acceptable in society – well, I presume that’s true, because it not only gives an evocative image, but forms a part of the plot too.
The story is told through the eyes of two characters. Flora, a wartime nurse who is now looking for respect and a career in medicine in a time where a woman had to fight for respect, and Inspector Albert Lincoln, a wounded survivor trapped in a loveless marriage due to the death of his son from influenza. Both characters have their own overlapping arcs and Kate balances their stories with skill, never letting one of the stories dominate the other. And both of the characters have a reality to them that makes certain aspects of the story all the more effective.
One thing that is always a strength of Kate’s writing is the complexity of plotting, with every character and event tying in somehow to the overall plot. If someone is behaving suspiciously, then there will be a well thought-out reason – whether or not they’re the murderer, everyone is usually up to something. It’s no different here – in fact, if anything, I think this is one of Kate’s cleverest plots of all. It’s quite common for a historical novel to get distracted from the mystery with the historical background detail or the personal issues of the hero – that certainly isn’t the case here.
I really can’t recommend this book strongly enough – it’s thoroughly involving, moving and thrilling throughout, while maintaining a healthy respect for the events that inspire and shape the story. I think this is Kate’s finest work yet, and that is saying something given that I’m already a massive fan of hers. Needless to say – Highly Recommended.