Friday, November 8, 2013

The Murder Stone: Review

It is 1916 and World War I is raging--a long, terrible campaign which decimated a generation of young men, often wiping out all the sons of a household in a single sweep.  Such is the case with the Hattons.  Francesca grew up with five cousins in Francis Hatton's home.  Her parents and theirs both long dead in mysterious accidents.  When the Great War comes around, each of the boys bravely sign up to do their duty...but none of them come home.  Francis collapses after the last telegram arrives, announcing the loss of Harry, the family favorite.  Francesca, who has been working in London to offer aid and comfort the wounded, heads back to the estate to nurse her stricken grandfather.

Francesca Hatton barely has a chance to begin grieving for her beloved grandfather before she begins to find out that her grandfather may not have been the man she thought--at least not entirely.  At the reading of the will, she finds out that he owned two properties that had never been mentioned. Amongst the papers in his deed box there is a vicious letter cursing Francis and the Hatton desendents.  Then when she returns to the desolate house, she finds ex-soldier Richard Leighton on her doorstep--greeting her with accusations that her grandfather murdered his mother.  

The Leighton family has long hated the Hattons--with a hate fueled and fanned and kept burning as brightly as possible by Richard's grandfather, Alasdair MacPherson.  Having read of Francis's death, Richard has come to see if the man he has been taught to hate left any references to his mother....or, if possible, he had confessed his part in her disappearance.  Francesca is bewildered by the accusations and can't believe that the man she knew and loved could have been a part of anything so horrible.

But Richard isn't the only one with accusations and questions.  After the funeral--at the meal served at the rectory, several "mourners" show up accusing Francis of nefarious deeds and demanding certain items and property they say was stolen from them and theirs.  There is also a woman who claims to have been Francesca's nanny--but who none of the servants recognize.  

Was Hatton the loving man Francesca remembers--and are the people mistaken or, worse, playing out some vindictive mission of their own? Or did Hatton lead a double life--showing one face at home and in the Valley and leading a secret life which made him enemies? Did Francesca's grandfather seduce Richard's mother and force her from her family?  Did he do worse and kill her when she didn't want to stay with him?  Did he also cheat another man out his home and hold another man's property hostage?  The accusations pile one on another and Francesca faces more questions than she can possibly answer.  But, if she's ever to have any peace, she must find the answers

There is also the question of the Murder Stone.  So-christened by one of the cousins, this large white stone has seen its share of blood over the years--both a real body and the imagined battles of the children at play.  What secrets could it tell? And why has Francis stipulated in his will that the stone must be dug up and transported to Scotland--to be buried at the point furthest from Exe?

Running counter to the present story, we have "letters" from the dead--the five cousins, as well as Francis Hatton himself.  Some of what these voices have to tell us confirms information that Francesca learns....and then there are moments that contradict the actions and stories of our cast of characters.  Not only is it difficult for Francesca to learn the truth....but in the end, the reader is unsure whether we have been told the final story after all.

This is an absorbing, gripping story.  Told with all the assurance of good research, Charles Todd made me absolutely believe that I was in England during World War I.  There is an air of tension running throughout that is tied not only to the mystery itself, but to the backdrop of the conflict.  There are wounded men who have been invalided out and those who have escaped hospital who don't quite know who or where they are.  As other reviewers have pointed out, this is more of a Gothic mystery story than a straight crime or detective novel.  But it is a Gothic mystery done well.  Francesca's plight is very real and very affecting and I had to keep reading to see if she ever got her answers.  Four stars--highly recommended.

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