A Mansion for Murder, by Frances Brody

13 Mar
Illustration style cover for A Mansion for Murder, by Frances Brody. A white woman with dark short hair in a curly bob, wearing a pink late 1920s 'Gatsby' era dress (long bodice, waistline at the hip, pleated skirt to below the knee, long sleeves, integrated necktie in a fairly pronounced v-neckline), with contrasting waistband, cuffs, and necktie in royal blue, is hiding against a wall, leaning over to look surreptitiously into a large room with a fireplace, and a large area rug with bold designs in bright colors (deep blue, red, pink, royal blue). On the far side of the room, other arches open to other rooms, in one of which the shadow of a person wearing pants can be seen creeping into the main room.

Reader beware: death of a parental figure; child in danger; another child’s death (several decades prior); miscarriage or self-induced abortion; off-page rape; sudden death (heart attack) of a minor character; tangential mention of PTSD.

Disclosure: the formatting of the ARC is weird. For starters, it does not have a table of contents. At all. For a 300 pages and change book. That made it time consuming to go back to check things as I got to the later parts of the story. I presume this won’t be the case for the final product, but it makes it harder for me to review an advance copy. (YMMV obviously).

Beyond that, there are whole sections with hard returns after every sentence in the same paragraph, the name of the author appears randomly in the middle of some pages, there’s nothing to indicate transitions between narrators, and so on. (See footnote 1)

I hope this didn’t color my opinion of the book too much, but that’s one of those things that are really hard to quantify, so do keep it in mind as you read this review.

A Mansion for Murder, by Frances Brody

This is the thirteenth book in the Kate Shackleton series; despite having several of them in the TBR Cordillera of Doom, it is also my introduction to the series and to the author’s writing.

The story is set in an English textile mill village, Saltaire, established by a visionary mill owner in 1851. Many historical facts are woven through the novel, and there’s an interesting author’s note at the end, with further details. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the novel has a very strong sense of place, and an almost equally strong sense of time–as in, it’s firmly set in rural England in 1930.

Time as it passes in the story is another matter altogether, given the number of narrators.

But I get ahead of myself. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

When Kate Shackleton disembarks at Saltaire station, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, she has no idea what to expect. A stranger, Ronnie Creswell, has written to say that he has urgent information about the past that will interest her, and he persuades her to make the journey to Milner Field, the grand house that is said to be cursed. But moments after Kate arrives at the lodge, a messenger brings devastating news to Ronnie’s parents: he has been found drowned in the mill reservoir.
Ronnie’s father suspects that this was no accident, and the postmortem proves him right. Ronnie was murdered. Terrified and distraught, Mrs. Creswell refuses to stay at the Lodge a moment longer. But events take an even more shocking turn when ten-year-old Nancy Creswell, eyes and ears for her blind Uncle Nick, goes missing. An account of the fateful Saturday of Ronnie’s death arouses Kate’s suspicions, and further investigations could prove her right. But truth is never so straightforward at Milner Field. Uncle Nick spins an old story that could hold the key to finding Nancy alive—though the fabled curse may not have claimed its last victim yet. And only a set of old bones buried on the grounds will finally reveal the horrifying truth.

In the novel, we have two timestreams, so to speak: the story starts with a snippet set “long ago” and narrated in third person past tense from the point of view of Nick, initially a young boy; and then we have Kate Shackleton narrating her arrival in Saltaire, where, shortly thereafter, she becomes involved in a suspicious death.

This narrative device is all good and well, but what tripped me more than a bit was having bits here and there narrated in third person past tense from the point of view of various other characters. Mostly because, if there’s a first person narrative, I expect the author to justify that (so to speak) by building the story exclusively from that character’s point of view. This is doubly true in a mystery.

It also bothered me because, aside from Nick, the secondary characters who narrate feel chosen more or less at random.

There are a few threads narrated from Sykes’ point of view and only one longish passage from Mrs Sugden’s, who are Kate’s regular sidekicks (as she lets the reader know via one sentence each in the first chapter). But there are also passages from minor characters’ point of view, sprinkled without rhyme or reason I could make out.

Please note: I enjoy ensemble books, including mysteries, where the story is told from multiple people’s points of view. I am not averse to multiple narrators at all! However, going back and forth between first person to omniscient third person, even in deep point of view, is jarring for me. (And, sorry to harp on this, but the formatting issues seriously didn’t help here.)

With that (mostly) out of the way, let us get into the story itself.

We have a young man who, having arranged to meet with Kate, is murdered that same morning. We have a cursed property, with a story spanning centuries, and a young woman who refuses to name the man who got her pregnant. We have industrial espionage, star crossed lovers, and a grieving heiress. We have a fight between friends, and an old man whose witness testimony has been dismissed. We have an arrogant estate manager and a slimy godson. We have a significant theft and a missing cleaning lady. We have a young girl who sees and hears many things, and who tells what she knows to anyone who listens.

And we have Nick’s story.

I’ve said before that fiction has to make sense, but I should say, *genre* fiction has to make sense. In a mystery, all the disparate threads must come together to form a coherent narrative, where one should be able to follow how they tie together.

And with one exception, all the threads in the novel are satisfactorily tied off at the end; the last conversation at Ronnie’s funeral is particularly poignant, and I confess that I did not see the final revelation coming.


We are told more than a couple of times that Kate has been a professional private investigator for over a decade, and that she has a reputation for getting results. And yet, at no time did I feel that she had a good handle on the events going on around her. Her inner dialogue wasn’t particularly organized, and neither was her approach to the mystery.

Even Sykes, the former copper, spends a lot of time distracted by personal issues, so even when he and Kate are supposed to be discussing the case, those conversations lack focus and clarity.

Further, we are told a few times that there’s active danger–above and beyond the whole, “that mansion is cursed, don’t enter”–but Kate doesn’t take any precautions, even around people she vaguely suspects of wrongdoing.

Which adds up to me feeling that a good chunk of the mystery mostly solved itself as Kate watched, rather than her working things out.

Then there are the things that should have been cut–starting with Sykes domestic disturbance. It contributed nothing to the mystery, yet took a fair bit of page space, and it was not the only plot thread or scene that did contribute anything meaningful to the solution of the mystery. Mrs Sudgen little jaunt? Could have been recounted in three paragraphs in a conversation with Kate. David’s ruminations while in jail. And so on.

I read the novel from beginning to end, no skimming, but damn, those 300 pages felt really long, The story felt bloated.

And that means that I never felt the tension and dread that a cursed mansion, a dead young man, and impending danger should have elicited.

So while I was satisfied with the end, and I found some parts of the novel quite moving (especially those related to Nick’s story), I am not the kind of reader Ms Brody writes for.

A Mansion for Muder gets a 7 out of 10

This book will be released on March 21.

* * * *

1 I had to correct a couple of typos in the blurb (postmortem is one word, there is no hyphen). In the body of the novel itself, things like “in principal” instead of “on principle”; it is never “principal” unless you are talking of capital v assets, in which case it would be “the principal”. (Yes, this bothers me more than it’s reasonable.)

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