Evil has come to sleepy Shenstead Village. The lady of the manor, Ailsa Lockyer-Fox, has died under mysterious circumstances. Her husband is tried and acquitted of murder–if indeed, it was murder–and has been the victim of a vicious harrassment campaign ever since. Now a group of Travelers have taken over a patch of unclaimed ground in the village and are trying to use an ancient law to make it their permanent home. At least, that’s what they say they’re up to, but their leader is curiously well-informed about the denizens of Shenstead Village, and he spends most of his time spying on the doings up at the manor house. It will fall to the missing Lockyer-Fox heir and a brave little boy to unravel the mystery and prevent further tragedy at Shenstead Manor.
I almost couldn’t read this one–the opening scenes feature such cruelty to animals and children that I didn’t think I could keep reading. (I do very badly with scenes of child abuse especially, and have abandoned books before when they were too violent.) But soon after the traumatic opening, we meet Capt. Nancy Smith of the Royal Engineers–she’s the Lockyer-Fox heir, sought out by her beleaguered grandfather nearly thirty years after she was given up for adoption. Nancy is so smart and capable and sensible, I felt reassured about continuing the story–surely she wouldn’t let anything too terrible happen to either me or little Wolfie, the abused 10-year-old through whose eyes we witness much of the story. Well, we still have some cruelty to endure, but Capt. Smith more or less fulfills her promise. She was a great character to spend time with.
As in The Icehouse, Minette Walters sets the village gossips up as figures of particular malice, and takes a great deal of pleasure in knocking them down in as humiliating a manner as she can manage. I have to say, I spent some formative years in a very small town, suffering the poisonous gossip of bored, insulated, small-minded types, and I took a great deal of delight in watching Shenstead’s nasty natterers get their comeuppance. More even than the takedown of Wolfie’s abuser and the mastermind of the plot against Col. Lockyer-Fox—although that was fun, too.
This is another twisting tale from Walters, and I admit, I chased after every red herring she dragged across the track. She absolutely got me, and I appreciate an author who can so skillfully lead me down the garden path. Without doubt, I will read everything Walters writes, and I expect I’ll be well-entertained on the way.
This review completes Peril the First in RIP V!