In 1940, John, 9th Duke of Rutland, died alone in a draughty room off the servants' quarters of Belvoir Castle, a room in which he had lived and worked alone, more or less continuously, for two years. The rooms were then sealed for sixty years.
When Catherine Bailey gained access to them, to work on a history of the First World War, she discovered that John had been assembling, or perhaps dissembling, the family archives. Here were copies of all their letters. Except there were three missing periods within the records. From the evidence of the butterfly clips that held packets of letters together, the evidence for these periods had been removed by John, while he was compiling the archives.
The first relates to a time when John was eight and his elder brother died.
The second relates to 1909, when John was a reluctant diplomat in Rome.
The third relates to a period between July and December 1915 when John was in the British Army during the First World War. The third missing period corresponds exactly to the time when John's war diary suddenly goes blank.
What were the secrets hidden by the missing evidence? Were they all linked?
The start of this book reads like the most exciting thriller, perhaps a classic Robert Goddard such as Long time coming or Blood count. I am a fan of this genre. Bailey adds neat touches: she jumps around in time between the story of John and the story of her researches; her prose is sparse and matter-of-fact as if the mystery is quite the opposite; there is the wonderful moment when she leaves the allegedly haunted room in which the Duke died in search of a coffee, only to be surprised by a woman "in her early seventies and dressed in the costume of an eighteenth-century parlour maid."
I could scarcely read this book fast enough. However, as we approach the end the story is marred by the endless quotations from family letters. Most of these letters help to add a little extra to the puzzle but they also contain many trivial details that are not necessary. In short, she could have shortened it.
And in the end, not all the details are resolved. Thus is real life unlike a thriller but it is unsatisfactory although it gives one the sense of enduring mystery and the hope that someone one day might resolve the remaining puzzles.
Nevertheless, this was a cracking read. May 2013; 425 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57