Rarely do I finish a crime/mystery novel with the sense of being spiritually uplifted and renewed, but such was my experience when I finished Janet Laurence’s exquisite tale of murder, mystery and intrigue set in the world of the English aristocracy at the opening of the 20th century. Because the fictional world was so richly realized and because so many of the characters were so fully developed and, more importantly, allowed by their author to freely exist within their fictional world, this really felt like reading a mystery novel by Henry James, Jane Austen or even George Eliot. Both the moral sensibility of the work and its fictional craft are of a very high order, and as a result, we come to ‘know’ these characters and their fictional world so intimately and so deeply. The usual elements of the Gothic mystery romance are in place, aristocratic families with dark secrets, first born sons living decadent lives, frustrated daughters trapped in arranged marriages, younger aspiring daughters seeking true love, and ferocious matriarchs dominating all family members to ensure that everything is done to protect the reputation of the family, such reputation having been elevated to the status of an idol which corrupts. And lastly, as the jacket blurb makes clear, we have impregnated servant girls discovered dead in a ditch. And where there is one body, there will undoubtedly be more and Ms. Laurence does not fail to oblige, concluding with a genuinely shocking denouement that took me completely by surprise. The bare outlines of the plot sound like the usual Gothic romance cliche. But what Ms. Laurence has done is to take the convention and, while fully respecting its requirements, transform it into a deeply absorbing “look” at the inner workings of the British class system. She does this by creating with subtlety and nuance the fictional world of an English aristocratic family and examining the effects of this family’s follies and pretensions upon the lives of those around it, including their servants and the towns folk who must deal with the estate in one way or another. There are so many realized characters in this book who are lovingly respected by their author and allowed their own independent existence.
This is particularly true of her central narrator, Ursula Grandson, a woman of uncommon tolerance and wisdom herself, who is an American visitor to the English estate. She is accompanying as a chaperone a rich, slightly spoilt and petulant American heiress who has come to visit her sister, married to the Earl of Mountstanton and herself a countess. Ursula Grandson is unmarried and without means, and thereby heading towards spinsterhood, though this seems not to bother her a wit or to prevent her from having romantic aspirations of her own. Once again, on the surface, the conventional elements of a Gothic romance mystery seem to be in play. Yet the character of Ursula is created without any sentimentality and equipped with a vision of human nature that is wise, tolerant and deeply perceptive, and which well equips her to handle the series of murders that occur and which she feels morally obliged to investigate. She has few illusions, what she does have is the capacity to appreciate the persons she encounters as fully realized individuals separate from herself. We notice her ability to empathize with the lives of the servants in the household, her concern about not taxing them with unnecessary chores on her behalf, and to do so without a trace of condescension. We also note her capacity to relate to individual members of the town with decorum, civility and genuine warmth and respect, qualities the townsfolk sense immediately and which inspires trust in them. Ursula as a character forms the heart of the novel and it is because of her presence and her moral vision, tolerant, wise, yet cunning in the ways of human folly, that we ourselves feel our own moral vision expanded and uplifted. I came to the end of the novel, which is a deeply absorbing mystery, feeling that Ursula was a woman I would very much like to know ‘in private life’ (to employ an old fashioned phrase). Her own capacity for empathy with the myriad human beings she encounters expanded my own capacity for tolerance and understanding. Living within her fictional world was for me a spiritual experience.