Four or five times a week, in the dead of night, when the phone rings up at the Manor House, elderly James Lockyer-Fox, a retired colonel, hears nothing but deep breathing—or a rant about how he killed his wife Ailsa, who froze to death outside the locked Manor doors. Although he’s been exonerated by the Crown, someone who clearly demurs is butchering foxes and his dog and leaving their flesh on his steps. It’s possible this is the work of a band of travelers led by the abusive Fox Evil, squatting on the land bordering his and laying claim to it, but the colonel and his late wife had also roused the enmity of a pair of village women who felt snubbed by them and by their housekeeper, whom they’d accused of stealing. Besieged, isolated, and estranged from his ne’er-do-well son Leo and his debauched daughter Elizabeth, who may be exacting revenge on him for his emotional coldness, the increasingly frail and despondent colonel instructs his one ally, solicitor Mark Ankerton, to find the illegitimate daughter Elizabeth was forced to give up years ago. Unfortunately, the appearance of granddaughter Nancy Smith, now a captain in the Royal Engineers, engenders new tribulations: rumors of incest. What exactly is the colonel guilty of? Beneath the red herrings, Walters’s real focus is parental brutality, and readers will long remember the harrowing treatment of young Wolfie, Fox Evil’s ward, and Leo, the dissolute victim of diminished expectations.
Those images nearly compensate for a plot that Walters (Acid Row, 2002, etc.) wraps up more with a dispiritingly mundane air.