Weird high jinks by minor nobility fuel this enjoyable, sometimes too leisurely stroll into Victorian history.
Holders of one of the greatest private fortunes in England and an enormous family home called Welbeck Abbey, the Cavendish-Bentincks were a strange lot, and they declined nearly as quickly as they rose. By 1898, write British journalist Freeman-Keel (From Auschwitz to Alderney, not reviewed, etc.) and popular historian Crofts (Sold, not reviewed, etc.), even the once-grand family mausoleum had deteriorated. Down among the moldering skeletons was an eldritch world of dark tunnels and hidden doorways, for the lords of the manor liked nothing better than keeping secrets and squirreling away their treasures. A half-century earlier it had been rumored among the populace around Welbeck Abbey that down among the underground chambers the fifth duke of Portland was constructing “a chapel that would later be changed to a ballroom, which would be the largest unsupported structure in the world.” Lord John, the aforesaid duke as well as marquis of Titchfield, and the other Cavendish-Bentincks, had a fine time of it in the mid-19th century; they were instrumental in Disraeli’s election, popular among the aristocracy (though whispered about), and well-enough liked by the locals to sire an illegitimate child or two. But their good times unraveled in strange ways that involved fratricide, blackmail, madness, grave-robbing, identity-switching, petty larceny, and all other manner of mischief, not to mention a couple of Bleak House–style lawsuits. It was enough to keep an Inspector Morse occupied for years, and the authors do a fine job of spinning out the saga. If their story is a little overblown at times, they pull together its many threads into a neat package by the end.
A pleasure for mystery buffs.