Agnes has cataracts, which for a woman in her profession makes things difficult at times. Agnes is a silhouette artist, a skilled profession requiring expert vision. Agnes is lucky to still be able to use her skills. Two years ago, she nearly died from Pneumonia and she still feels the effects of its sickly grip, her body never fully recovering.
Times are tough and Agnes is barely scraping by. The invention of the daguerreotype stealing away her customers, customers desperately needed to keep the wolves from her door. That is why she is upset that the man knocking at her door is not a customer but Sergeant Redmayne, a police officer. This upset only deepens when she learns from Redmayne that a customer of hers that she had been doing preliminary sketches for last week, has been murdered, his plump lips, that she remembered, smashed in along with the rest of his head. Redmayne leaves Agnes with the haunting words that apart from the killer, she may have been the last person to see him alive.
Mr Boyle was her first customer in months. And now with his death, Agnes will not receive payment for the commission she had almost completed. Agnes is worried not only for herself, but her mother and nephew, Cedric, who live with her and are in her care. With the battle to stave off penury becoming fiercer every day, Agnes despairs that this murder will affect her livelihood.
Once Redmayne has left, Agnes checks her large leather-bound book in which she keeps copies of her work. Turning to the back and the most recent customers, Agnes finds that Mr Boyle’s copy is creased. The outline of his head bent and crumpled, just like his corpse.
When Agnes delivers the work she has done to the widow, she finds that Mr Boyles throat was cut. Why then did the killer smash his head in?
Pearl is known as “The White Sylph”, her albinism the prominent reason for the sobriquet. She is a spirit guide, and even though only eleven years of age, unlike all the charlatans and frauds many years older, Pearl’s powers are real. It is to Pearl that Mrs Boyle comes to speak to her murdered husband. The dead speak through Pearl, not to her, and after each séance Pearl is exhausted and none the wiser as to what the dead have revealed. All she knows is that Mr Boyle’s shade did not reveal his murderer.
When another of Agnes’s clients turns up dead, Agnes decides to pay Pearl a visit believing that a séance and being able to talk to the dead clients a legitimate way to solving this vexing, and fearful problem.
Seances are the perfect venue for suspense, fright and terror, and Purcell does not miss the opportunity. Purcell also keeps some of her cards hidden. There always seems to be information, vital information that will enlighten the reader, just out of grasp. Teasing little snippets of the dead sister every now and then. What happened to Agnes’ sister, Constance? What happened to Montague? Characters who are always on the periphery of the narrative but seem to be integral. The constant references to an accident.
This tactic is a sound one, only adding to the overall suspense and confusion. Is there a killer murdering Agnes’ clientele; or is there a more sinister, supernatural force at work?
I am not going to say more because I do believe for this book to have the impact that the author intends, the less the reader knows the better.
There is a noticeable pace to this story. The narrative is like a locomotive gradually gathering speed. As the story progresses, just like the locomotive, the suspense and fear gather force. And then the locomotive becomes a runaway. And just like a runaway locomotive, there is nothing you can do. However, the speed is not so great as to prevent a wicked twist at the end. This is a brilliant, riveting read, almost as good as “The Silent Companions” and my favorite read for the year so far.
Laura Purcell is a former bookseller and lives in Colchester with her husband and pet guinea pigs.
Her first novel for Raven Books THE SILENT COMPANIONS won the WHSmith Thumping Good Read Award 2018 and featured in both the Zoe Ball and Radio 2 Book Clubs. Other Gothic novels include THE CORSET (THE POISON THREAD in USA), BONE CHINA and THE SHAPE OF DARKNESS (2020)
Laura’s historical fiction about the Hanoverian monarchs, QUEEN OF BEDLAM and MISTRESS OF THE COURT, was published by Myrmidon.