Two unrelated deaths, thirty years apart, set in motion a chain of cause and effect. Decades later, so many answers remain unspoken. The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown is an unusual multiple timeline historical mystery set in Cornwall, rather like Mary Stewart mysteries but darker. Ivy Boscowen has known two deaths in her life. In 1918 she is mourning the death in the Great War of her son, Tim. The exact circumstances of his death cannot be confirmed and this haunts her, she becomes afraid that her reluctance for him to enlist actually forced him to go and so feels responsible for his death. At night she dreams of Tim when he was a child, hiding beneath a bed. This dream morphs into the memory of another young death; when Ivy was nineteen, young William Tremain died in a house fire at the nearby Polneath. He was found asphyxiated beneath a bed. The two deaths are unconnected in terms of circumstances and cause, but are forever connected in Ivy’s mind because of decisions taken.
When she was a teenager, Ivy was sweet on Edward Tremain, son of ‘Old’ Tremain, owner of Polneath and the gunpowder works. Appropriately, at the heart of this novel are two fires plus explosive secrets hidden for decades. Ivy is a rambling, unreliable narrator who makes inconsistent statements, assumptions and rash decisions, and I found it difficult to warm to her.
The echo in the opening sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s first sentence of Rebecca felt unnecessary and heavy-handed. Yes, this novel is also set in Cornwall, but tone and style are different. This is more a character piece than a mystery and I didn’t find it particularly gothic. Some events are mentioned in advance so there is no mystery when they happen, others are simply disorientating rather than curious. The timeline switches between the two main timelines – 1888 and 1918 – plus flashbacks to Tim’s childhood and 1919, and it’s not always clear when things are happening.
I finished the book in two minds. I prefer the 1888 storyline but can’t help thinking there is a clearer, stronger story buried within, hidden by unnecessary plot complications and red herrings.
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Read my review of THE WITCHFINDER’S SISTER, Beth Underdown’s debut novel.
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