Initially unfamiliar with this talented writer’s work, I was immediately fascinated by Walter’s clever mix of mystery and social issues, in this case society’s isolation of undesirables based on nothing more than ignorance and innuendo.
When Phoebe Maybury’s husband disappeared ten years earlier from Streech Grange, the police conducted an extensive investigation, but it was never determined whether the man was a missing person or presumed dead, although Chief Inspector Walsh has set his sights on Phoebe Maybury as the instrument of her husband’s death.
Now, ten years later, a body is discovered in the ice house at the Grange, albeit nearly impossible to identify, lacking body tissue, dentures and clothing, an impossible conundrum for the Chief Inspector. But he returns to the Grange with a vengeance, this time determined to solve the mystery and charge the culprit.
Assisting Walsh is Detective Sergeant O’Loughlin, who diligently applies himself to interrogating the three women who now occupy Streech Grange: Phoebe Maybury, Diana Goode and Anne Cattrell. Fast friends since childhood, the women have shut out the rest of the world in response to the purposeful isolation of the villagers, who taunt them with accusations of child abuse, witchcraft and lesbianism.
Phoebe’s children are currently at school but required to return for interrogation. The women are particularly reluctant to involve the children, considering the trauma of ten years earlier when Jon was eleven and Jane only seven years old. In addition, Phoebe’s daughter is extremely vulnerable, newly recovering from a long struggle with anorexia.
Although the pathologist fails to come up with an easy resolution, unable to identify the remains as the missing Maybury, Walsh doggedly pursues Phoebe, sure he can break her story. Meanwhile, it is O’Laughlin who grinds through the real police work, tracking down pertinent facts that will ultimately solve the case.
More troubling for O’Loughlin is his response to the sarcastic repartee of Anne Cattrell, who seems able to goad him into the most outrageous responses that tax his belief in himself as an agent of the law and as a man. Uncomfortable with the bursts of unreasonable anger with Cattrell, the detective is drawn deeply into the painful world these women have endured over the past decade, often finding himself torn between his sympathies and his duties as a police officer.
Set against an unfolding mystery and one man’s obsession to find blame where there may be none, it is the very human foibles of these characters that fascinate and inform: a mother’s efforts to protect her children, the lightning spread of vile rumors embraced by gullible villagers, and the unbreakable bonds of friendship forged in adversity.
Phoebe, Diana and Anne have learned a valuable lesson while they stave off the continued assault of ignorance bred in the village: “The triumph of the human condition is to face one small defeat after another and to survive them relatively intact.” Walter’s message is clear, a call to civility and tolerance in lieu of the easy rewards of violence in the name of righteousness. She had me from the first page.