Three generations of homeowners feel the effects of a violent murder in rural England.
Hester Larkspur’s will, leaving Red Barn Cottage, in Polstead, Suffolk, to her goddaughter Josephine Tey, has a strange codicil. If Josephine wants the cottage, she must sort out Hester’s papers, evaluate their worth and let someone named Lucy Kyte take what she most needs from the cottage. No one, not even Hester’s lawyer, knows who or where Lucy is. When Josephine first visits the place, it’s in such sad disrepair that she isn’t sure she’ll get what she needs, either. The cottage was named for the barn where Maria Marten, a willful young Polstead woman, was murdered and buried more than a century ago. In her prime, Hester was a beautiful and popular actress best known for her role in a play based on the murder, and she fueled the legend by writing a diary that’s a fictionalized account of Maria’s tragic life, as recounted by her best friend. While Josephine gets to know both Maria and Hester through the diary and struggles to make Red Barn Cottage more livable for herself and her lover, Marta Fox, she’s increasingly aware that something is amiss. Not only did Hester die while huddled away in a tiny room that fills Josephine with dread, but some restless presence also demands her attention. Marta, like Josephine, an independent and clear-thinking woman of the 1930s, doesn’t dismiss the idea of a ghost in the house. But Josephine begins to suspect that a living person has played an important part in the more recent history of the cottage—and may mean harm to its new owner in this carefully crafted tale of heartbreak and haunting.
Upson’s (Two for Sorrow, 2010, etc.) attempt to engage real-life mystery writer Josephine Tey in a murder is not for those who want a quick-moving story. For more patient readers, the contemplative tone and historical detail yield their own rewards, along with a couple of clever surprises.