Kirkus Star


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Goddard, a master of intricate period skullduggery (Past Caring, 1986; In Pale Battalions, 1988), hits his stride with a superb thriller on the old, old theme of the claimant to the identity of a long-vanished heir. A few days before he's to marry Constance Sumner in 1871, James Davenall, oldest son of irascible Sir Gervase Davenall, leaves a suicide note and disappears. Eleven years later, one James Norton appears on Constance's doorstep, which she now shares with husband William Trenchard, and announces that he's James Davenall, having renounced his fiancee when he was diagnosed as a victim of congenital syphilis and having spent a decade in America before learning that the diagnosis was wrong. The surviving Davenalls--Gervase's widow Catherine, his son Hugo, and his cousin Richard--unite with Trenchard in rebuffing the claimant, only to fall victim to his knowledge of nasty family secrets: that one night in 1846 Gervase used his unsavory friend Prince Napoleon, pretender to the throne of France, as a decoy to lure Scottish governess Vivien Strung into a topiary maze and rape her; that Hugo Davenall, the current baronet, is actually the son of Catherine and Richard; and that James himself is not Catherine's son. As James' case comes closer to trial, Richard finds himself taking the claimant's side against his own son; and in order to secure Constance's sympathetic testimony, James arranges to discredit her husband in a stunningly complete way. In the meantime, the Davenalls and their allies plot to identify James as either Vivien Strang's son Oliver or Stephen Lennox, son of a land-agent to whom Gervase inexplicably gave ten thousand pounds. Two murders follow (and a third is revealed), but it isn't until after James has won his suit, married Constance, and mysteriously disappeared again four days later that Goddard--who's played every secret for all it's worth--finally reveals who James Norton really is. A plot worthy of Wilkie Collins, given full-dress treatment by Goddard's attention to detail in this superior Victorian sampler.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Poseidon/Simon & Schuster