Monday 6 December 2021

Guest review by Penny Dolan: THE SECRETS OF WISHTIDE by Kate Saunders

                   The Secrets of Wishtide: : A Laetitia Rodd Mystery Kate ...

"Winter is just the season for this kind of novel, read in a favourite armchair or sofa or even in bed."

Penny Dolan
works as a children’s storyteller and writer. Her last novel for older children, A Boy Called Mouse, was nominated for the Young Quills Historical Fiction Award, and she is currently completing a companion book. She posts on The History Girls, on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and also on The Cranky Laptop Writes, her personal blog. For more, see and @pennydolan.

Winter is just the season for this kind of novel, read in a favourite armchair or sofa or even in bed. It is the first in a series of Victorian detective mysteries featuring the most admirable Mrs Laetitia Rodd. Kate Saunders, author and journalist, tells the story through Mrs Rodd's voice and through her letters, and it is her compelling character that makes this book such a pleasure to read.

Please note of the title: this novel is not about a secret but many “secrets”: Saunders starts simply enough but we are soon in a complex plot that twists its way through every page. Although at times, there are echoes of David Copperfield and Great Expectations, these moments seem to me to be musings on aspects of his plots and his characters rather than any pastiche.

Meanwhile, Mrs Rodd's firmly female view of Victorian society gives this novel a nicely different flavour. As the widow of an Archdeacon, her life has given her experience of high society, grand houses and elegant events as well as nursing, the laying out of bodies and charitable work with the poor and needy.

Now, in much reduced circumstances since her beloved husband’s death, Laetitia is lodging in a cottage in Hampstead with Mrs Batley, her landlady and steadfast friend. Fortunately, Batley’s amiable family, scattered across the lower social levels of the city, can be drawn on to provide necessary contacts in many trades and establishments.

Laetitia’s beloved brother, Fred, is a successful criminal barrister with a large, attractive personality, an expensive and snobbish wife and a growing household of children. He has encouraged Laetitia to turn to detective work as a way of keeping her valued independence rather than be, as his wife intended, an unpaid live-in governess to their brood.

As the story begins, Laetitia - through Fred - has already been involved in some successful and discreet cases, which is why Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist, requests her help. He employs Laetitia to act as a governess at Wishtide, his great house in rural Lincolnshire. Her mission is to uncover the truth about the pretty music teacher that his only son and heir wishes to marry. Surely Helen Orme cannot be as pure and blameless as she seems? Unfortunately, as the investigations progress, the many questions only serve to unlock several deeper mysteries and gory murders.

The fourth character in Saunders' crime quartet is Inspector Blackbeard, a dour widower and policeman, only interested in verifiable, provable fact, and his responses have a way of conflicting with Laetitia’s feelings about what needs to be done next. I enjoyed her exasperation with Blackbeard, but also smiled (alongside the author, I think) as their relationship develops.

Alongside the layers of plotting, there is much warmth in this novel: the indomitable Fred often leads his sister into playfulness, her old friends in the clergy-wife network help in her investigations, and she acts kindly towards shopkeepers and servants and smaller people who struggle to get by.

There is social comment too, as Laetitia quietly observes the double standards within marriage, and the dominance of reputation, inheritance and money, and, as we see at the end, acts with boldness and bravery.

Kate Saunders' writing is precisely and nicely good, rather like the heroine herself. Below,. in the small, almost passing scene, she subtly combines social setting, precise domestic details and Mrs Rodd's quietly amused observation.

Sir James is due to return from London and has requested Laetitia Rodd - in disguise as a governess - to attend dinner at Wishtide ...

“Mrs Craik had come to my room to ask if I needed any help with my evening clothes: doing my utmost to keep a straight face, I explained that I possessed no evening clothes and would be wearing my one good black silk. Mrs Craik firmly took it away to be pressed, along with my white cap with the ribbon of watered silk. I can’t imagine what she did to them, but my dress and cap came back beautifully glossy and stiff, and I was rather surprised by the splendour of my reflection in the glass: this exemplary housekeeper had buffed and polished every blessed thing in the place, including the governess.”

Exemplary indeed!

I must, surely, close this review with the welcome news is that two further Laetitia Rodd adventures are already available.

The Secrets of Wishtide  is published by Bloomsbury


The Mystery of the Sorrowful Maiden: : A Laetitia Rodd ... The Case of the Wandering Scholar: : A Laetitia Rodd ...


1 comment:

Amanda said...

We love this series - the best, most intelligent and well-written kind of Cosy Crime.