The Secrets of Wishtide: A private detective of the utmost discretion
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
KATE SAUNDERS has invented a most unusual sleuth: the date is 1850, it is winter, and her detective is Laetitia Rodd, the impoverished 52-year-old widow of an archdeacon. She lives modestly in Hampstead with her landlady, Mrs Bentley, whose tenants have included John Keats. But Mrs Rodd is also “a private detective of the utmost discretion”, very useful to her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, when he needs to chase up facts that his clients would rather were kept hidden. He teases her by inventing a zippy phrase for her services: “Blushes spared and broken commandments mended.”
He is currently acting for the rich and powerful Sir James Calderstone, who wants to stop his son Charles from marrying a wholly unsuitable woman: a “Nobody from nowhere,” who is also a widow. Mrs Rodd is sent as a “governess” to his country seat, Wishtide, deep in frozen Lincolnshire, to learn more about her and the many secrets of her past. Events snowball, and complications multiply, including vicious blackmail.
It would have been helpful for readers to have a cast list for this complex and wide-ranging novel, which teems with vivid Victorian characters from all walks of life, from upper-class gentry in country estates to the seedy, vividly evoked London pub the Goat in Boots, where our heroine first encounters the disguised blackmailer — a murderer, extortionist, bigamist, and cheat, who is also handsome, charming, and plausible.
In Mr Rutherford, Saunders has created a splendidly chilling villain, who weaves his way through the story, leaving suffering and confusion behind him.
The dust jacket states that this is the first book in a series with Laetitia Rodd as investigator; so it is odd that the book ends with her fading out in “extreme old age”. Perhaps Saunders and her editor forgot that a series was planned? After this Victorian sleuth’s entertaining debut, I am sure that all her readers will hope for more.
Of additional interest to the readers of this newspaper will be the book’s dedication: “To the memory of my beloved mother, Betty Saunders, who would have made a brilliant detective.” Instead, the author’s mother was a news reporter, latterly chief reporter on the Church Times.