Christobel Kent is perhaps best known for her series of novels set in Florence starring Sandro Cellini, a former police captain turned private investigator. Now, in "The Crooked House," she leaves the heat of Italy for the rain and watery light of the Essex coast, placing this novel of menace and psychological tension in Saltleigh, a xenophobic, secret-keeping English village.
Thirteen years earlier it had been the scene of a terrible crime at "the crooked house" of the title. A father of four shot and killed his wife and three of his children before bungling his own suicide. That, at least, is how the police eventually interpreted the evidence. The surviving child, 14-year-old Esme, hidden upstairs, heard the gun blasts, but never accepted her father's guilt, and he himself, completely incapacitated, cannot testify.
Esme passes into the care of an aunt in Cornwall who changes the girl's name to Allison to put her tragic past behind her; but the young woman's apprehensive, closed-off personality remains its legacy. Esme-now-Allison's life might have gone on in a muted fashion, except that Paul, her relatively new, somewhat older, boyfriend has invited her to accompany him to a friend's wedding to be held at — uh-oh — Saltleigh.
Once there, the novel generates a terrific atmosphere of foreboding and peril. Do the villagers recognize Allison as Esme? What is she to make of their stares and sidelong looks? And, it turns out, creepily enough, that Paul and the bride-to-be have a history, one that seems not to be over.
Allison's state of mind becomes increasingly fragile. She visits the scene of the crime; she meets an old acquaintance; and another and another. Yes, the villagers do know who she is — and a few things more. She begins to see the past in light shed by several shocking revelations. Figures are glimpsed on the marshes and a man dies there. Is it murder?
The wedding ceremony is interrupted by loud battering on the church doors "and outside a voice was raised, wild." There's another attempted suicide. The crooked house creaks and whispers. The reader has to put the book down for a while in the interest of stress management.
This is a murder mystery with all the clues and false leads that involves, but it is also one of those novels — at which the English have been such adepts since at least Emily Brontë — whose pages are stalked, across desolate reaches of moor or, in this case, marshes, by suspicion, treachery and paranoia. If the final denouement is not completely satisfactory, the journey there is entirely so — if you can bear it.
Katherine A. Powers reviews widely and is the editor of "Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963."