Penrose was just on his way upstairs again when he heard the sound of the front door closing and a woman’s voice in the hallway. ‘Dr Laxborough? Dr Laxborough, are you there?’
He called out to reassure her, not wishing to alarm her any more than he could help, and she looked at him in surprise as he appeared at the top of the basement steps. Stephen Laxborough’s housekeeper – assuming he had guessed correctly – was a homely-looking woman in her late forties, with straw-coloured hair under a felt hat and a dark green coat that had not been ‘best’ for several seasons. She stood just inside the front door, her hand still on the latch, as is she were uncertain whether to stay or go, and Penrose noticed a small suitcase on the floor by her side. ‘I’m Detective Chief Inspector Penrose from Scotland Yard’, he said, fishing in his inside pocket for his warrant card. ‘This must seem like a dreadful intrusion and I’m sorry to startle you, but—‘
The presence of a police officer in the house seemed to confirm something that she had already suspected, and she cut him off before he could finish. ‘He’s done it, then. I thought he was planning something.’
I seriously, seriously love this book. A strong story of men and women as well as a well though-out mystery.
The main mystery may seem a bit unlikely, with its ‘inspiration’ to M.R. James’s ghost stories, but its unfolding, how the inquest proceeds, the way clues are discovered are so realistic that it will convince you. The murders are gruesome and cruel – the outcome described in such details to be disturbing – and still, you nearly understand the murderer once the reasons are explained. That’s how well this mystery is constructed.
A secondary thread intertwines with the main mystery, although only in the end we see the two are somewhat linked. It concerns attacks on women happening in the university city of Cambridge although, as the norms of decency dictated at the time, ‘rape’ could never be utter, nor acknowledge.
And finally a third thread centres on the personal life of Chief Detective Inspector Archie Penrose and a secret that goes back to the days of the war.
These characters became like real people to me. The choices they face are tough, but they always act in a sensible way, they never become melodramatic. Although the series bears the name of Josephine Tey, this particular novel focuses on Archie Penrose, who I found a particularly likeable character. His humanity and his understanding of the human nature makes him a great detective, but also a very nice human being. Although I appreciated Josephine’s assertiveness and her wisdom, Archie commanded my reader’s involvement.
This is the seventh novel in the Josephine Tey Mystery Series, which is particularly relevant for Archie Penrose’s thread since what happens to him has its origin in previous books, but I never felt lost. The author gives info enough to navigate Archie’s current emotions and the very kinky situation he finds himself in, but never so much to feel too much. This thread, which might have been distracting if handled less skillfully, ended up complementing the overall theme: the past coming back to haunt the present.
The historical setting is truly remarkable. Late 1930s Cambridge comes to life. It’s a place that I can nearly see, even if I’ve never been there. And I love the way past and present intermingle even in the time of the novel. This is a place stuck between two horrible wars, and you can almost smell it in the pages.
This is a great mystery. But it is, above all a very good story.
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