Child abuse, rape, theft, blackmail, prostitution and drug addiction make for a heady drama in Minette Walters' The Scold's Bridle, which explores the darker side of relationships and offers us what is, at times, a bleak view view of humanity - but it is a view which, nevertheless, ends on an unexpected note of hope for the future, and the promise of some kind of redemption.
Unlike Ellis Peters in A Disarrangement of Epitaphs (see my previous post), Walters jumps straight in, and establishes the scene quickly and effectively as a policeman, doctor and pathologist stand around a bath pondering the dead body Mathilda Gillespie, who has been found drowned, with her wrists slashed, and her head crowned with flowers and a scold's bridle. Nearby is a bloodied Stanley knife, an empty bottle barbiturates and the remains of a glass of whisky.
It looks like suicide, but it isn't. It's murder. And there seem to be plenty of people who had cause to hate Mathilda, who was snobbish, vindictive, manipulative - and very wealthy. So who was the killer, and what was the motive? Everyone, it seems, could have a reason, and everyone has secrets they are reluctant to tell.
Mathilda's daughter and grandaughter both need money, so was one of them her killer? And what about her nighbour, a one-time lover who has given up on life and his frightened wife? Even cool, calm and competent Dr Sarah Blakeney comes under police scrutiny because the old lady has left everything to the GP. And, as she gets caught up in the hunt for a murderer, Sarah must resolve her own problems with her feckless artist husband Jack who, it transpires, had painted Mathilda as she posed naked for him.
Interspersed with the story are pages from Mathilda's missing diaries, and gradually hidden histories are revealed, throwing light on her character and actions, and on her family and those who know her. We hear the tragic tale of an abused, unloved child, who grew up unable to love and abused others, destroying their ability to love and trust - but it is difficult to tell who is abuser and who is victim, or who is manipulator and who is manipulated. Perhaps there is a little of both in everyone. And is Mathilda's story reality or fantasy?
It is a remarkably literate work, scattered throughout with quotes from Shakespeare - Hamlet, Othello, King Lear - and each is a kind of clue, pointing the way to something we should know or think about, however obcure it may seem at the time. The quotes, like Jack's paintings, are a kind of game, guiding us through a psycological maze of broken relationships: parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and servants, lovers and lovers.
As Sarah and Jack, caught in the coils of their own torturous relationship, try to puzzle out who killed Mathilda, kindly, sensible Det Sgt Tommy Cooper picks his way though the various strands, trying to establish the truth, but the psychological games people play try his patience, and he and his colleagues resort to their own pyschological trickery as they question suspects, follow clues and finally catch the murderer.
This novel was part of my charity shop haul and, for some reason I didn't expect to like it - in case you are wondring, I bought because I felt I should read something different, and I'm glad I did. It was well written, and well plotted. The story gripped me from the beginning, and the characters werewell drawn. I even liked the rather downbeat ending which, despite the note of hope, had a rather ambivalent feel to it: the future may work out well for the characters concerned, or may not - but at least they will have tried to be happy, if not for ecer, at least dor some of the time.
Verdict: I enjoyed this book, would read it again and, on the strength of it, I'm off to hunt for more titles from Minette Walters!
*Yes, I know the picture is upside down, but I don't know how to correct it...