Once a famous actress, Caroline Fawley is now happily installed as mistress to married business tycoon Marius Fleetwood at the beautiful and elegant country manor of Alderley, where sheís having the time of her life playing "lady of the manor" and "mother" to her two teenagers. While the local villagers arenít happy at this sleazy arrangement, they darenít do anything except let Caroline know their displeasure by snubbing her. Carolineís two teenage children know all this but choose to immerse themselves in their own private worlds.
The sudden unexpected arrival of a man claiming to be a hitchhiker churns up the placidity of Alderley and arouses Carolineís suspicions. Some days later, she goes with Marius to see her oldest daughter, Olivia, star in an opera. That same day, a brutal murder occurs and, as the police start investigating, skeletons come tumbling out of closets. Before she realizes it, Caroline is soon involved in the whole ghastly affair.
Robert Barnard is a famous contemporary mystery writer, and this story nicely highlights his flair for creating a complex mystery preceded by a growing aura of unease and suspense. Barnard takes the time to flesh out, developing his characters and making them come alive through his words, whether itís Caroline the mistress or her growing children, the requisite mysterious stranger or the posse of assorted policemen. The typical narrow-minded, gossipy small-village mentality is exposed and made use of most skillfully to add a sinister touch to the plot. The story starts out most quietly and without a hint of things to come, so much so that the murder comes out of nowhere and delivers a nasty punch. The pace picks up and never slows down, and Barnard skillfully maintains the secrets up until the very end. The investigation is many-pronged, and every step of it is worked out and explained neatly to the readers. Overall nicely detailed, this is one cozy murder mystery.