I’ve a weakness for country house historical murder mysteries and that intriguing cover set in a very snowy landscape caught my eye. So I was delighted when I received an audiobook arc for this tale.
BLURB: Scarpside House is famed for its beauty, its isolation and its legendary parties.
Tonight, it hosts the Penny Club soiree, an annual gathering of lucky men and women from all walks of life, coming together to celebrate their survival against the odds.
But this year, their luck is running thin. Accidents do happen, after all….
And some are long overdue….
REVIEW: The premise is a very familiar one – there’s a country house full of guests with murky pasts which make them either liable to murder their fellow party-goers, or be murdered due to something they’ve done. And no… when it becomes obvious that there’s a serial murderer on the loose, they can’t just rush to the front door and summon their chauffeur, because this house can only be accessed by a funicular ride. And someone sabotages it after our plucky detective arrives.
I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. Hulme’s prose is lush and highly descriptive, both of her characters and Scarpside House, evidently going for a gothic vibe. However this sub-genre demands loads of tension and fraught sense of wrongness, tipping into horror at times. That means that the reader needs to be invested in at least the main character, so that when Detective Sergeant Frank Glover is in peril, or at least struggling with the investigation – we need to care. Despite David Morley Hale’s excellent narration, I never really bonded with Glover. I found his initial aloofness towards the recently bereaved guests rather off-putting. We spent a great deal of time in his head as he roamed around Scarpside House on a ceaseless hunt for clues, when he mused about the loss of his mother as a small boy and his feelings for a young woman who was caught up in a previous case he was working on. I thought him rather self-absorbed and didn’t like him all that much. This was a problem as we are clearly supposed to care about him when he gets into several dangerous situations. Whereas I worried more about poor Dotty.
The other issue is the constant over-description of the house. Hulme clearly has a vivid visual imagination, but I really didn’t need an intricate description of the colour of the walls in every single bedroom or the curtains, cushions and carpets. It defuses much of the tension built up by the growing body count. The creepy atmosphere caused by the snowstorm and the knowledge that there is at least one highly dangerous person roaming around the building is also compromised by the over-long descriptions as it slows the pace far too much and took my attention away from what really matters.
I wasn’t convinced that Glover would have co-opted Dotty, the servant in quite the way he did – but I was prepared to suspend my disbelief on that score as she is the only person in the book I really liked. The tone of murder mystery did seem rather overblown at the beginning, instead of building up that sense of dark wrongness that permeates a gothic thriller, so I wondered if Hulme would pull off a successful denouement that adequately explained all the rather elaborate and varied styles of killing. I think she manages it, just about.
I’m aware that writing a classic murder mystery these days, with a nod to those who went before, takes a great deal of technical skill. While I was never tempted to DNF this one, as I was invested sufficiently to stick to the end to discover whodunit, I do think Hulme’s editor should have been more rigorous with the red pen and murdered a few more of her descriptive passages along with the various victims. While I obtained an audiobook arc of The Thirty-One Doors from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.