Former governess Emma Betony is interrupted in her attempt to join a retirement community for gentlewomen by a letter from one of her former charges, Grace Aram. Miss Betony used to regale Grace with exotic tales of her aunt, Mary Shagreen, which provided a bright spot in her childhood. Grace now runs a small school which has been evacuated to a former nursing home in the countryside – though two of the patients still live on the site. Grace begs Miss Betony for help; it transpires that one of the patients seems to be being poisoned, and several of the patients and school staff are in thrall to a mysterious psychic called The Great Ambrosio, who lives in the nearby village.
Miss Betony will have to bring all her intelligence and courage to bear in order to foil a cruel plot. And as the title suggests, she may have something to fear herself…
I found the experience of reading this book to be unlike any other crime fiction I’ve read; I am not even sure whether I would put it in the “fair-play mystery” category. There are clues – but they run the full gamut, from blatant, to unfair, to the deviously subtle. The reader will likely figure out certain key points much faster than Miss Betony does, but piecing together the full picture might not be fully possible, because the plan at work here has to be one of the least sensible I’ve seen in crime fiction.
In many respects the story follows what I believe are classic tropes of gothic suspense fiction; but the unreality of these clashes with the attention to detail given to the characters and their interactions. We get lots of insight into most of the key characters in the book – particularly Miss Betony herself. I found her a compelling main character. While she’s not perfect, she is perceptive, resourceful, and sensible, and I wanted her to succeed and worried for her when she was in danger. The book goes to some lengths to portray her mental state in certain scenes, and I thought these were, for the most part, very effective. The writing style can become overwritten during these parts though. In general I found the writing had a slightly old-fashioned feeling to it; in the very beginning of the book I almost wondered if Bowers were using long and unusual words on purpose, though this wore off after Miss Betony headed for the school. Typically the detective fiction I read has a much more straightforward style – it was interesting to read something with a different approach. The allusive and complex style works great for the purpose of hiding clues, but then at the point where the clues should be expained, it still expects the reader to work hard to connect the dots, and the plot has an awful lot of dots to connect.
For the majority of the book, we follow Miss Betony, with occasional glimpses into the perspectives of other characters. The atmosphere builds as Miss Betony investigates the school, before hitting a trilogy of dramatic scenes. One of these provides the scene shown on the cover. Miss Betony decides that she must visit The Great Ambrosio, who holds such sway over the potential poisoning victim (one of the nursing home patients, Miss Thurloe). While she enters already prepared for him to be a charlatan, the consultation takes some rather unexpected turns. By the end of the book I was still unsure of the meaning of everything that happened there.
Back at the school, there are also some dramatic night-time happenings, which are actually the most we see of the students. Don’t go into this book expecting a real school atmosphere; the students are essentially just plot devices, and Miss Betony, ostensibly there to teach, never seems to get round to it. But I found the night-time events worked well to add further atmosphere and intrigue. Shortly after this, the events and tension build to a suspenseful and emotional climax –
before the book suddenly switches gears.
The final few chapters follow Chief Inspector Dan Pardoe as he unpicks the complicated events of the rest of the book. Although it was a strange shift, I thought it worked as a kind of catharsis for everything the characters suffered through beforehand. The solution is clear, and it only remains to seal the fate of the guilty party. However, not all the answers are satisfying. In particular, the reveal of part of the plan pulled me right out of the story, as I just couldn’t believe that the culprit would think it was a good idea.
For all the story’s good points – the main one for me being its unusual approach and style – I think the implausibility of the plot might be the thing I take away from it, unfortunately. I think it’s still worth reading if you enjoy interesting characters, good writing, and atmosphere, and if you don’t mind a few plot holes.