The Curse of Malenfer Manor
By Iain McChesney
In previous posts I promised (threatened?) to share some of what I’m reading – it’s always a question raised by readers and novice writers (when I say that it sounds to me like I’m the grizzled veteran author, doesn’t it?), which obligation I’ve dutifully met a couple of times since.
My review this week serves dual purpose: fulfilling that pact and promoting the work of a fellow local author. Full disclosure: I know and have broken bread with the author in question but lest you question the veracity of the review, he did make me promise I’d be brutally honest.
I confess I wasn’t entirely sure into what I had fallen as I began the journey into Iain McChesney’s The Curse of Malenfer Manor. Part historical fiction, part war drama, part paranormal, another part class study, and a murder mystery, with a hero whose sidekick is one of the most spiritedly unusual a reader is likely to find. Set in France of 1919, the story follows the journey of an ex-pat Irish discharged soldier who is visited by the ghost of his French lieutenant (don’t even ask me how they get the letter ‘f’ sound into that word). Once Dermot comes to terms with the reality of his commune with the dead, he accepts his fallen comrade’s request to accompany to the latter’s family estate and manor to deliver the news the now posthumous solder can not himself deliver: there are two heirs to the family fortune the family is as yet aware. And while the deceased father wishes his sons to inherit their due, by doing so he fears they will also inherit the misfortune that has traditionally befallen the male line in the Malenfer clan.
A key strength is McChesney’s skillful, occasionally poetic descriptions of time and place. Early scenes showing Dermot and Arthur in, or, as sappers largely under, the trenches and battlefields of Great War France, paint horrifying pictures of places we’d rather not be. Similarly, the manor and countryside is beautifully depicted that while fictitious in the specific, so ably sets the reader in the place and era in which the complex tale occurs.
McChesney’s Dermot is more than the classic ‘reluctant’ amateur sleuth, thrust into a generations-long mystery he didn’t know existed, Dermot’s own demons from troubled family seem always bubbling just below the surface as he navigates the complexities of the family Malenfer. His outsider status in the family not only complicates his ability to carry out his dead friend’s final wish, it is further complicated, alas, as he falls for his comrade’s young sister, a love that grows more quickly than a contemporary reader might find feasible but fitting with the muddied amorous protocols of the day it feels entirely genuine. In Simonne, McChesney has created the reluctant trophy heiress, an Elizabeth Bennett for the new world, not quite free to make her own choices, not willing to blindly accept those made for her.
It is at times dark – very dark – and McChesney doesn’t shy away from the violence, which is a lovely juxtaposition against the Victorian manners of the day, though the violence portrayed is never gratuitous. Rather it is splayed on the page with an appropriate horror; we are shocked at its rage but not repulsed by its portrayal – a tricky balance to be sure. But it also has moments of hazy comic insight – I chuckled aloud at numerous turns of phrase, both for their wit and their entirely appropriate placement in time.
The book weaves a fine blend of tales: the horrors of war, the injustice of social class, the complexities of family, while at its root offering a classic who dunnit – a mystery wrapped in the cloak of historical fiction. Thus it is a story for fans of a variety of genres: historical fiction, ethereal adventure and, of course, mystery.
Of course, for me, stepping away from the confines of crime writing in which I spend what writing hours I have, is a refreshing opportunity to visit crime writing through a different lens, set against the backdrop of a time I know only through history books (and the history lessons I once taught). I see it as an entirely challenging prospect, one in which my colleague has masterfully succeeded.
Next week: incentives.