When the key character of a novel goes on holiday or visits a picturesque place, you know something is going to happen. Genealogist Esme Quentin in The Indelible Stain by Wendy Percival goes to Devon to help a friend archive the records of a local charity for underprivileged children. Second in the Esme Quentin genealogical mysteries, this is an enjoyable story of convict history set in a beautiful Devon location. But beneath that beauty lurk fraud, lies and revenge. Hatred and bitterness reach from the past to the current day.
Up early on her first morning, Esme takes a walk on the wild beach and finds a body. The woman, just alive, seems to have fallen from the cliffs. Her last words, spoken to Esme, are key to the mystery which follows. “I lied,” she says. Beside her body is an old sepia photograph. The police don’t take seriously Esme’s concerns that the woman’s last words combined with the mystery photograph indicate foul play, so Esme decides to identify the family in the photograph.
Meanwhile, Neave Shaw is worrying about her mother who has disappeared after sending a confused, possibly drunken, email. Worried and not understanding her grandmother’s dismissive attitude to Bella’s disappearance, Neave presses for answers but is interrupted by a knock on the door. It is the police. Neave arrives in Warren Quay and asks Esme for help in understanding why her mother died. Esme quickly puts a name to one of the people in the sepia photograph: Sarah Baker, a thief who was transported as a convict in 1837. Sarah’s story adds a fascinating layer of history to this whodunnit and whydunnit mystery. But what is Sarah’s link to Neave’s dead mother? And did Bella fall or was she pushed? Esme’s research into Sarah’s convict history is helped by the presence of the Mary Ann, a restored nineteenth-century sailing ship with an on-board museum about the history of convict transportation.
The last few pages move at top speed as Esme discovers hidden identities and double-crossings and races to find Neave to warn her of danger. She knows that whoever killed Bella to protect the secret will not hesitate to kill again. I would have liked to read more about Sarah Baker’s journey on a convict ship to Australia and her life there, showing some of the facts rather than having Esme discover them in a dry record search. So much tantalising history lies beneath the surface of this story. I found some elements confusing at times as the story moves so fast and also because of the number of aliases and marriages; this might have been eased by merging or dropping some minor characters, for example Ruth/Maddy, Dan/Felix. But Percival’s characterisation of some minor characters was spot on; I particularly liked retired schoolteacher Miss Hodge and Neave’s irascible grandmother Gwen.
This is a well-paced genealogical thriller enriched by its Australian and Irish links and demonstrating how the resentment of wrongdoing can persevere across the generations.
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THE INDELIBLE STAIN by @wendy_percival #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3xs via @SandraDanby