Back in the 17th century, in a sleepy Somerset village called Little Baring, a woman and her mother were falsely accused of being witches and ended up drowned in the ducking process. Legend has it that these charges were trumped up by the wife of Hugh Condamine, as a reprisal for the woman being her husband’s mistress. However, her revenge is short lived as she dies herself some time later, supposedly haunted to death. Jump ahead three centuries and film director Stephen Latimer is planning to shoot a film around the story, having been offered the tale by Hugh’s descendent, George. There are mixed reactions to the film, yet the contract is signed and a matter of weeks later the crew are ready to shoot. Yet when Latimer and his assistant Evan Hughes return to the area, they discover there has been a death. This death amongst other events will encircle the pair, but will they also engulf them?
The story, in the main, is structured around Evans. He may only be the assistant director, but he is a pivotal character. His interactions and thoughts concerning others feed into a lot of the third person narrative we read. He is not the most extrovert or dominant of personalities, but his kind nature ensures other turns to him for support. I think this was a good choice on Dalton’s part, as if we had followed Stephen around more, then we would have had a more egotistical journey. Once Inspector Hugh Collier arrives though, then the narrative splits off from this pair at certain points, in order to further the police investigation.
Dalton sets up an intriguing puzzle and often includes small incidents which make the reader wonder why that person is doing X or Y. She ensures the reader is highly suspicious of everyone and everything. It’s a wonder we’re not suspecting the family pooch of foul play! The reader is also left in suspense regarding who is going to die, as the beginning of the book leaves it wide open. However, I thought a lot of these small incidents/intriguing moments were dropped, with nothing coming of them, and as such the puzzle is somewhat simplified by the denouement. Nevertheless, I think the reader feels as though they are in the same position as the police, in terms of information and clues available, and whilst the reader is likely to anticipate the solution, I don’t think they are really sure until quite near the end. We do have a last-minute witness who turns up out of nowhere, but I don’t think this is detrimental to the reader figuring out whodunit.
I think the historical backstory is interestingly deployed and it works well with the present-day film crew scenario. I am curious though that no criticism is levelled at Hugh, who wanted to have a wife and keep his mistress, as really it is his behaviour which is the source of all the trouble that follows. Neither at the time, nor in the present day, do the characters bring this up.
I thought it was particularly effective to have one of the suspects for the modern-day murder mirror the mistress’ fate, i.e. be a scapegoat of a witch-hunt, with events and people certainly conspiring against them. For me this further cemented a relationship between the past and the present. That said I am not sure how chilling the legend is supposed to be for the reader. At one point Hugh’s wife reveals that she is being haunted by black hair, (the last thing seen of the mistress in the ducking pond). She sees it hanging on furniture and it even apparently grabs her leg. I am sure it would be a frightening ordeal to experience, yet when reading it I only had a rather more facetious mental image:
Bonus point if any British blog readers can identify which advert this hairy fellow comes from…
So all in all, whilst the puzzle could have been a bit complex, I still think this was an engagingly written mystery with an unusual backdrop.
P. S. I also wondered if it was a coincidence that Hugh’s wife was called Delia Street, as it seems awfully close to the name of Perry Mason’s secretary, Della Street.