Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime fiction novels are as much adventure novels as they are crime stories. In those stories, the suspense comes not just from the crime and its investigation, but also from the sleuth’s and other characters’ exploits, if I can put it that way. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at an adventure/crime novel today and turn the spotlight on Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man.
The novel takes place in 1793 on the Isle of Wight, where Lady Drusilla Davanish lives at Westfleet Manor with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. Lucie is engaged to marry Giles Saxborough, son of Lady Drusilla’s godfather Cuthbert Saxborough, and everyone’s happy about the upcoming event. Tragedy strikes though when Cuthbert is found dead of what looks very much like a tragic riding accident. Drusilla isn’t sure of that; her godfather was an expert horseman and she finds it hard to believe that he would have made the mistakes that seem to have led to his death.
She begins to ask questions but she’s soon distracted by another matter. It seems that one of her tenants Jeremiah Smith has been smuggling. Drusilla wants to put a stop to the smuggling but she has no proof at first. She finds evidence of a kind though and continues to try to catch Smith in the act, so to speak. As she does so, she begins to attract some unwanted attention from people who do not want the smuggling to be interrupted.
In the meantime, tragedy again strikes the Saxborough family when Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed while out on their yacht. Again, the deaths are put down to terrible accident, but Drusilla is sure that they were murdered. For one thing, both were powerful swimmers who should have been able to survive. For another, Thomas was a skilled yachtsman. And there are several possible motives and suspects too. Could Thomas have caught French smugglers, who then killed him? What about Giles? Now that Thomas is dead, Giles inherits the family home Ledstone Place, as well as the family fortune. There’s also the strange fact that Cuthbert’s brother Vincent, long thought dead, has suddenly returned to the Isle of Wight with his son Piers. And then there’s Radleigh Reevers, Giles’ cousin from the mainland, who is paying a visit to the island to help look after Ledstone until Giles’ wedding. He seems to know more about the smuggling than he’s saying, and what’s more, always seems to turn up at odd moments.
Drusilla is certain that her godfather’s death and the deaths of his son and grandson are tied in with each other. And as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together, she begins to fear that the killer she’s up against is closer than she wants to think, and very dangerous. With help from her groom John Mudd, Lady Drusilla slowly finds out the truth about what happened to the Saxborough men, and how it’s related to the ongoing problem of smuggling on the island.
This is an adventure story, so there’s plenty of action. For instance, in one scene, Drusilla is nearly killed when two strangers try to get her to stop investigating smuggling. In another, she goes to a very seedy sailors’ pub disguised as a young man to get some information. There are other ways too in which adventure is woven into the story, but I don’t want to give away spoilers.
The novel is also an historical mystery and Harris has carefully ‘done her homework.’ The novel is set during the time of The Reign of Terror that followed the beginnings of the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror plays an important role in the novel in several ways. For instance, Drusilla’s uncle (Thirza’s husband) has been taken captive in France and in one sub-plot, Giles is secretly working with some of his contacts to get his fiancée’s father to safety.
In other ways too, Harris captures the times in a believable way. We see for example the very sour relations between the English and the French at the time, and that plays out at a very human level. Readers should be aware that since the characters in the novel are English, there is some very, very strong anti-French sentiment. It’s quite authentic, if not exactly pleasant by today’s standards. There’s also Harris’ portrayal of the social structure and customs of the day. Readers get a look at visiting customs, wedding preparations, mealtime habits and much more. There is a real sense of the time period, even to the descriptions of clothes, which those who follow fashion will find interesting.
Another element in this novel is the character of Lady Drusilla. In many ways, she is a product of her times and her social class, and that makes her authentic. But she is also independent, intelligent and quite courageous. She’s hardly perfect though. She sometimes acts rashly, she makes mistakes as she’s getting to the truth about the murders, and she can be impatient. It’s not hard to like her though and wish her well.
In the course of the novel, Lady Drusilla becomes interested in Radleigh Reevers, and the attraction is mutual. But you couldn’t really call this a romance. For one thing, Reevers is a suspect and Drusilla is quite well aware of the danger of being involved with a murderer. For another, Drusilla very much enjoys her independence and
‘…no man, however amiable, would allow me the independence I am accustomed to. And that is something I am not prepared to give up.’
It is to Harris’ credit that this relationship doesn’t instantly (and unrealistically) blossom into love. It does add a layer of depth to both characters though.
There’s also some humour in the novel. For example, one of the minor characters in the novel is the insufferable Mr. Upton, the local parson. No-one much likes him or his officious moralising and sanctimonious behaviour. So it’s especially funny when one day Drusilla and her groom are making their way to her home together only to witness Mr. Upton fall down a muddy slope. To make matters worse, a cart goes by and splashes him with more mud. The driver stops to help Upton and give him a ride home. But when Upton then loses his footing getting into the cart, falling face-down in the mud, neither Drusilla nor her groom can help dissolving in laughter.
‘‘We shouldn’t laugh, my lady,’ he chortled, making no effort to hide his own mirth.
‘No – and I wouldn’t,’ I gasped, holding my sides, ‘if only he wasn’t so full of his own importance.’’
There’s also Drusilla’s Aunt Thirza, who can be infuriating. It’s not that she has no redeeming qualities but Drusilla sometimes gets her fill of the woman. At one point for example, Drusilla has just found out that her aunt couldn’t keep to herself a rumour that Giles Saxborough killed his brother. Instead, she told Giles’ stepmother, who is already devastated by the tragedy in her family:
‘I was so angry that for one very brief moment, I asked myself why it was that, if a murderer was indeed at large, he had failed to choose my aunt as a victim.’
The wit comes through in other places too and it makes for a refreshing counterpoint to the sadness and the loss in the novel.
Letter From a Dead Man is a believable mystery set in a fascinating and authentically-depicted historical era. It features a solidly-developed protagonist, plenty of escapes and adventures, and a thread of wit too. But what’s your view? Have you read Letter From a Dead Man? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 15 July/Tuesday 16 July – In the Blood – Steve Robinson
Monday 22 July/Tuesday 23 July – Witness the Night – Kishwar Desai
Monday 29 July/Tuesday 30 July – Forty Words For Sorrow – Giles Blunt