A Mansion for Murder: A Kate Shackleton Mystery
The setting in Yorkshire, in the town of Saltaire, provides a perfect location for murder—actually, several deaths. In the 13th book in this mystery series, private investigator Kate Shackleton receives a curious letter from a stranger, Ronnie Cresswell, requesting her to meet him at a specific time and place, but only hints why: “I have something to tell you, a story about the past that I know will be of interest to you.” He mentions he works as a maintenance man at Salts Mill and his parents are the gardener and housekeeper at Milner Field, a mansion for sale. We soon learn that this mansion is reputably cursed.
The novel begins with a text entitled “Long Ago” instead of receiving a chapter number as is used in most of the book. There are several of these sections, but structurally, the undated headings are confusing, perhaps intentionally misleading, at least until we learn the action takes place 60 years prior to the main story. Setting the actual year and then replacing the chapter numbers with ongoing current dates, i.e., August 1930, would be more logical and helpful to the reader, who is left uncertain when “long ago” occurred. These short texts center on Nick, a boy who discovers an arm bone in a centuries-old well, one that is much older than the recently demolished 1550 manor. Town lore says the bone belonged to a young shepardess who fell to her death. As the current mansion is under construction, Nick’s friend Billy perishes down a house shaft, and Nick helps his schoolteacher cover up a secret. Both events haunt him.
When Kate arrives (in the novel’s present), she learns that Ronnie Cresswell has drowned under suspicious circumstances in the reservoir attached to Salts Mill. She is hired by Mr. Whitaker, the owner of the mill and the for-sale mansion, to investigate Ronnie’s death and some irregular business activities as well as to organize the house’s cleaning, for which Kate enlists her trusted housekeeper, Mrs. Sugden. Her assistant, Jim Sykes, is charged with running a probe into the business issues that may—or may not—be linked to Ronnie’s murder.
The book is stuffed with over 25 characters and features numerous interwoven plots involving a miscarried baby, pregnancies, love affairs, parents unhappy about their children’s chosen lovers, a sprinkling of policemen, several extended families, a missing girl, people with guilty consciences, and murders. And, of course, there’s the mansion where Kate and Mrs. Sugden stay, of which Brody writes: “The house had swallowed emptiness and breathed it into every corner.” A lot baked into this pie.
Comparisons on the cover are made to work by authors Rhys Bowen and Jacqueline Winspear. Stylistically, the former is more akin to Frances Brody’s writing. However, Kate Shackleton shares similarities with Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, a character who first appeared in 2003 (Brody’s series began in 2009 with Dying in the Wool). Both women are self-reliant English investigators, former WWI nurses, with male assistants who have ill wives (at least in this current title under review), and take place in the 1920s and 1930s. The novels also honor the independent generation of women who came of age during and after WWI and benefited by gains made by the English Suffrage Movement. Of the two series, Winspear’s plots are tighter, and Maisie is a more engrossing character than Kate.
Nevertheless, in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Kate is an unflappable sleuth with admirable powers of deduction, a young woman able to penetrate swirling mysteries, lies, and the devious smokescreens that killers use to disguise their identities. In this book, she unravels the “long ago” and contemporary truths of what happened at the mill and at Milner Fields.
A Mansion for Murder will be an entertaining outing for those who enjoy creaky British manor houses, with tower rooms hung with nooses, eerie dumbwaiters, and chilly drafts blowing, as well as small-town settings, where everyone knows everyone and the past bleeds into the present.