Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
The year is 1850 and Laetitia Rodd, archdeacon’s widow and lady detective, is preparing a rabbit pudding with her factotum, Mrs Bentley, when a summons from her barrister brother presages her next assignment.
Lord Calderstone’s son [and heir] is passionately in love with an unsuitable woman and Mrs Rodd is required to delve into the lady’s background and dig the dirt. As if that wasn’t sordid enough, preliminary probing uncovers hypocrisy, blackmail and too many servants who don’t know their place. Like the French maid whose employer, Lady Calderstone, had an affair, was deserted by her lover in Switzerland and brought back to their country house by her husband: the self-righteous paterfamilias who keeps a mistress in London.
The Calderstone daughters seem to be unworldly innocent girls, and their brother’s only fault could be that he’s enthralled by an impoverished widow when his father demands that he marry an heiress. With the family and friends taking sides, emotions become over-heated; action speeds up, fostered by a plethora of secondary characters: curates and clerks, rakes who gamble and consort with criminals, loyal or treacherous retainers and a scattering of drabs and fallen women. (The term “whore” is used but only in dialogue). Mrs Rodd investigates unfazed and unscathed but she is a series character and this is not Victorian noir although it tries hard.
Speech is stilted 21st century and it’s odd to find mention of tectonic plates in 1850. Wobbling between twee and gory The Secrets of Wishtide is something of a romantic novel gingered up with a few murders and as such, it falls between stools.