One of my favorite settings for a mystery is the moors of England. Blackstone Fell is set in northern England in the small fictional village of Blackstone Fell, where not only will you find a moor, but caves and a treacherous river and a sanatorium/asylum and a looming tower. All you need is some fog to complete the perfect atmospheric setting, and, oh, you get some of that, too. Now, the place setting is ready for the sinister secrets and disappearances and, well, murder that the peculiar inhabitants of such a setting are so adept at. Fall of 1930 is a time setting that makes the odd occurrences in the village most challenging to decipher and piece together to form a whole picture and more dangerous to investigate, as none of the modern resources of computers or cell phones are available. On the ground legwork, incognito snooping, and direct involvement with people is a necessity. One must get their hands dirty if answers are to be found. There are some resources, of course, for those who live in places with them, such as British Museum in London for newspaper reporting of disappearances and deaths. So, our snoops in Blackstone Fell, who hail from London, have a bit of an advantage over the village residents themselves.
This new Rachel Savernake book starts out in a deliciously mysterious manner. Nell Fagan is chasing ghosts, or rather the disappearance of two men three hundred years apart. She also has an interest in a recent death at the Sanatorium. In the small village of Blackstone Fell, Nell has rented the very Lodge House from which the men disappeared, so she can live there and talk to the people who would have knowledge of the rumors and facts she needs. She has her work cut out for her, as the villagers do not take to strangers and even less to strangers asking questions. The sanatorium/asylum located there is a mystery itself and adds to the sinister atmosphere. Nobody seems to know exactly what goes on there. Nell is posing as a photographer who wants to do a photo story on the village, so her moving about the area is not a suspicious activity. But her disguise won’t last long, and her identity as a London journalist will be exposed. Her first attempt to visit the village pub and buy a round of drinks to ease her way into the community fails. The only people who talk to her at all are the vicar’s wife and the doctor. She soon realizes just how unwelcome she is when a boulder rolls down from the cliff and comes close to smashing her like it does her tripod. Nell knows that this was no accident; someone tried to kill her. There’s no shortage of suspects with the likes of piously querulous Reverend Quintus Royle, the creepily reclusive Alfred Lejeune, and any of the haughtily taciturn Sambrooks of the Sambrook Sanitorium.
Nell takes a train back to London after her near brush with death, not giving up on her mission but trying to save it by engaging the best detecting mind she knows, a woman Nell describes “as sharp as a stiletto.” However, Nell has angered Rachel Savernake at an earlier time, so Nell must seek out assistance in getting an audience with Rachel in her fortress of a home, Gaunt House. Jacob Flint is the chief crime correspondent for the Clarion newspaper in London, and he knows Nell as a fellow reporter who is seasoned and sometimes a bit too outspoken. He knows that Nell has been blackballed on Fleet Street, home of the London newspapers, due to her earlier run-in with Rachel Savernake, and he also knows what an excellent reporter she is. Unfortunately, Nell’s habit of unreserved enthusiasm and single-mindedness is a handicap to her career, as she can be quite the bulldozer personality. The mystery she’s working on in Blackstone Fell could help get her back into the good graces of the newspapers though. Jacob is friends, as much as anyone can be a friend to the enigmatic Rachel Savernake, with Rachel and feels sorry for Nell, so he does manage to get Nell another interview with the reclusive Rachel. However, the second attempt to get Rachel interested in a project doesn’t go too well for Nell, as once again she withholds information and isn’t completely honest, which she agreed to be. Nell returns to Blackstone Fell and the Lodge to continue her investigations and face danger from someone who wants to silence her.
Jacob has his own investigation of another issue for his paper. His boss is determined to expose the spiritualists/mediums who take advantage of desperate people wanting to make contact with their dearly departed ones. His editor, Gomersall, is enraged at this hoodwinkery, and it is Jacob’s assignment to get the goods on one of the perpetrators in this scheme of fleecing the bereaved. Jacob has his sights on one Ottilie Curle, who has risen to great prominence as one of the most successful spiritualists, giving those left behind one more chance to hear the voice of their loved ones. As a quid pro quo with Nell for him having gotten her the chance with Rachel, Nell agrees to help him gain access to a meeting Ottilie is having with Nell’s aunt. Ottilie is a pro through and through, and Jacob realizes just how challenging tripping her up will be. You may be wondering if Jacob’s assignment of exposing fake spiritualists is just an interesting interlude in the action of the mysteries at Blackstone Fell. All I can say is that the connection between the two provides for a most thrilling denouement.
Rachel Savernake does become involved in the goings on at Blackstone Fell. Rachel admits she has “an unhealthy interest in murderers, especially those who masquerade as respectable.” She wants to know why they do it, since “by killing someone, they risk their own necks.” She also believes that justice “is much rarer than people like to think.” When someone dies a suspicious death by train in the underground, someone related to a person whose death Nell was investigating, and someone Rachel and Jacob were on their way to question, Rachel decides she must go to Blackstone Fell to solve the puzzles that are resulting in murder. As always, Rachel and her servants/companions work as a team in putting answers to questions, so Rachel and Hetty Trueman and Martha Trueman move into a cottage for rent, with the doctor and rector (and his wife) living as neighbors. Rachel has a cover story for her presence in Blackstone Fell, as does Cliff Trueman, who is staying at the local inn and pretending to be in the motor trade. All four in the ensemble have their roles to play if the darkness of Blackstone Fell is to be exposed. Of course, Jacob Flint is deeply involved in the investigation, too, both as a cohort to Rachel and a journalist wanting the big scoop.
From beginning to end, Blackstone Fell has commonalities with Agatha Christie novels, and Christie’s novels made me fall in love with mystery/crime fiction years ago. The small village set-up of Blackstone Fell with the vicar and the vicar’s wife, the local doctor, the eccentric person living in a tower, a widowed major, the wealthy and secretive lords of the manor all serve to pull me into a thrilling cast of suspect characters. The ending is also reminiscent of Agatha Christie. Without spoiling any of the ending, I will simply say that all the major players hear the solution to all the puzzles and murders at the same time in that wonderfully familiar way of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. I rather enjoyed the way Rachel announces the guilty, as just when you think you’ve heard all the revelations, there seems to be one more “but wait a minute” and then another. All the rocks are turned over to lay bare the wickedness beneath.
In comparison to the familiar sleuths of Christie, Rachel Savernake seems a more modern sleuth, a more deliberate thrill seeker, and she comes with the team of her three capable servants, who are more like family and always have her back. Miss Marple and Poirot seem more old-fashioned and set in their ways. Rachel is a risk taker, often in contrast with her logical thinking skills. The Golden Age vibe is continued by the inclusion of a “cluefinder” at the end of the book. These were often a part of a Golden Age mystery, listing clues to the solution and the pages upon which they’re found. The second Rachel Savernake book had an ending of the same form as this third book and the fascinating cluefinders, too. Something else that Martin Edwards does that always drew me to the Agatha Christie books is choosing apposite words to use. It’s not that every word is eye-catching, but there are those greatly satisfying instances where a word just feels so congruous in its application. I think the timing for this series couldn’t be better, as more and more people seem to have taken an interest in Golden Age and classic mystery/crime fiction. I don’t know who better to write a new Golden Age mystery than the person who literally wrote the book on Golden Age mysteries. Martin Edwards has brought all his Golden Age knowledge and seasoned fiction writing talent to create this brilliant Rachel Savernake series for readers to savor. Blackstone Fell is my favorite Rachel Savernake yet, although I reserve the right to repeat that line after reading the next book.
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