On 7th November 1843, Harriet Monckton, 23 years old and a woman of respectable parentage and religious habits, was found murdered in the privy behind the dissenting chapel she had regularly attended in Bromley, Kent. The community was appalled by her death, apparently as a result of swallowing a fatal dose of prussic acid, and even more so when the autopsy revealed that Harriet was six months pregnant.
Drawing on the coroner's reports and witness testimonies, the novel unfolds from the viewpoints of each of the main characters, each of whom have a reason to want her dead. Harriet Monckton had at least three lovers and several people were suspected of her murder, including her close companion and fellow teacher, Miss Frances Williams. The scandal ripped through the community, the murderer was never found and for years the inhabitants of Bromley slept less soundly.
This rich, robust novel is full of suggestion and suspicion, with the innocent looking guilty and the guilty hiding behind their piety. It is also a novel that exposes the perilous position of unmarried women, the scandal of sex out of wedlock and the hypocrisy of upstanding, church-going folk.
Comment: I got this book because I have enjoyed the previous titles I've read by this author.
I knew this one would be a little different because it would be based in true case, Harriet Monckton did live in Bromley in the 19th century and she was indeed murdered. I was simply confident the author would do a good job fictionalizing the main ideas into her trademark thriller style but I must say I was amazed by how much I liked reading this one and how much better than a simple thriller it ended up being for me.
Based on notes she found at a library's archive while searching for something else, the author picked some letters showing details regarding the murder of a young woman in Bromley in 1843. It seems the woman had been killed by prussic acid and the killer had never been discovered, although the police inspectors and the inquest revealed there were some suspects but without enough evidence to condemn them.
While using as much real facts as possible, Elizabeth Haynes created a story which would explain several of the suggestions made during the inquest and what could have possibly happened to Harriet on the fatal day...
It was really easy to read this 500 something pages book. The story flows easily, I was constantly interested in knowing what would be revealed later, on how each character would behave and even knowing some elements had to be invented for plot purposes, I was engrossed and focused on the story. It was also very rewarding how the author included a map of Bromley someone did for her, for it helped to place the characters' movements and where they were going in key scenes.
I also appreciated immensely the afterword in the end of the book, where the author explains her work method, how she got the idea, how she tried to suit the character's style to what was known of them in the real documents and how she felt like developing them the way she did throughout the story. I think she did a good job in allowing me to see and understand the events and the why of many things, even if, we have to accept, it was just a possible idea, just fiction.
The story is divided into different sections, so that we can follow the events according to the factual documents she found at the library but with addition so the mystery could be kept while she developed the characters and their reasoning. The division into sections felt very clever to maintain this a murder investigation where the killer wasn't too obvious.
However, I must confess, because of two or three sentences in different moments of the book, for me the identity of the killer became rather glaring. Did this ruined the experience? For me it didn't because the fascination of a thriller is often how things happen not as much who did them.
I was still devoted to read and see why some characters did the things they did.
Harriet is described differently by the different characters. This had to happen so that the mystery could continue and we wouldn't be easily set on having an opinion on her and on her personality. I think it becomes rather obvious though, as soon as we read the dedication the author used in the first pages and in the end, after knowing all about Harriet's possible path into death, I have to say it is tremendously unfair how some people just aren't allowed (by so many things - conventions, rules, society) to be able to control their own lives and not be judged by hypocrites.
I had a great experience reading this novel. I think it ticked all the necessary boxes for this to work out for me. Of course to each one, their own opinions.
This is an historical novel due to the year in which the events occurred but the story does feel timeless because it's still easier to ignore we, as a group, keep being judgmental towards those we deem unfit.
All in all, I think the author did an excellent job going towards an historical route and I think this worked out even better than some of her contemporary work.