Sir Richard has been found dead in his study in a lodge separate from the estate. A sand covered pathway leading to the lodge is tended to daily by a gardener who uses a roller to remove marks and then adds more sand to the path. Only one set of footprints is found leading to and from the lodge and they belong to Claire who discovered the body first thing in the morning while bringing Sir Richard his breakfast tray. An autopsy will later prove he had been poisoned the night before. How did the murderer get into the lodge and administer the poison without leaving any traces of having entered or left?
One of the characters, Edward Treviss - the young grandchild of Sir Richard's second wife Bella - is thought by nearly everyone to suffer from an odd psychological condition that sends him into fugue states where he possibly engages in activities then has absolutely no memory of having done them. In an effort to shield the 18 year old man from police suspicion the family lies about certain events and misleads Inspector Cockrill.
It is Sir Richard's will, however, that causes everyone to turn on each other. Prior to his death Sir Richard threatened to disinherit every one of his blood relatives and he planned on writing a new will that night. Problem is no one could find the will. Later it is discovered that the will was witnessed by the gardener and his wife so it must exist. But where is it? Destroyed? Hidden? And that's when the plot starts swirling into a maelstrom of accusations.
|Christianna Brand (circa 1950)|
Aside from the merry-go-round of pointing fingers I could not help but notice an interesting parallel to another very well known crime novel. At one point Bella, Richard's second wife, has an long theatrical monologue in which she reveals how much she loathes the estate and the haunting presence of Serafita, Richard's first wife. In a scene right out of Du Maurier's Rebecca Bella says "...more and more the memory of her came to dominate [Richard's] life -- and my life." And then as passionately as Maxim de Winter denounced his wife she concludes her speech with this revelation: "I kill for possession of this place! I hate every stone of it!" The memory of the estate's first mistress pervades Brand's story just as the first Mrs. de Winter taints and haunts Manderlay. Serafita was a former dancer and on the anniversary of her death a wreath of her favorite roses is placed around her portrait. Little boxes containing her gloves permanently adorn the mantelpieces throughout the home, her old ballet slippers also serve as mementos. It is as if - like Rebecca - she is still alive and will not leave the house.
Little do the characters realize how the house itself will play a crucial and shocking role in the harrowing climax. I doubt any reader will see what is coming although there are plenty of clues to the disaster that ends the book. It is a gripping and intensely cinematic finale -- perfectly suitably for such a brilliantly engineered detective novel.