Moss’s Victorian gothic mystery set in 1912 would fit just as comfortably into a more distant scenario, with its old-fashioned values and predictable characters: the confused heroine hampered by a forgotten past; a young man who follows his father’s directions though he yearns to become a serious painter; four men with a shared history of violence; faithful servants;
and a silent watcher in search of revenge for a terrible wrong. It all begins on
April 24--St. Mark’s Eve--with a church ceremony that culminates in a woman’s murder.
22 and motherless since birth, is mistress of Blackthorne House, where she practices skills learned from her
taxidermist father, Crowley Gifford, who has fallen into a life of dissolution in the years following the traumatic accident that erased his then-12-year-old daughter’s memory. While Gifford wanders the countryside or slumbers drunkenly in his room, Connie sits quietly writing in her journal or meticulously working on the bodies of birds to perfect her mastery of the art.
She has vague recollections of her father’s former glory days, especially the popular Gifford’s World Famous House of Avian Curiosities, where there were fabulous dioramas
and intricate depictions of birds as humans, complete with accurate period wardrobes and accessories.
All of that is gone now, lost with her memories but for lingering nightmares and the random occasions when she slips away from reality. The lonely girl lives in a large house with just one young daytime servant, Mary, and the father she worries over as he continues his self-destructive behavior and aimless wandering.
Gifford is nowhere in sight the day that Connie discovers the dead body of a woman near Blackthorne House. It is also the day she meets would-be artist Harry Woolston, son of a physician, who happens upon the scene. When Harry leaves to fetch help from the village, Connie examines the body more closely. The woman has not drowned, as first appears, but has been murdered, a wire wrapped tightly around throat, blood like a red ribbon circling her neck. By the time help arrives, Connie has begun to question events in the village since St. Mark’s Eve, frustrated as well by her ability to recall only fragments from the night of her accident that might be significant now, a name fondly remembered and an unbearable scene her young mind blocked.
This is classic gothic fare, murky and threatening, an old crime committed in secrecy, a stranger lurking nearby, watching over Connie while carrying out a meticulously planned revenge, the powerful men who have escaped responsibility and prospered, a village steeped in a culture of servants and masters, a young boy who lives by his wits, sees everything that occurs in the village and has great affections for the kind mistress of Blackthorne House and its troubled master. With its horses and carriages, ancient manors and walled asylum, a distressed heroine and her hopeful suitor, the story seems more appropriate to the distant past than the turn-of-the-century excitement of an England on the cusp of an industrial revolution. In this rich-man/poor-man drama, wealthy men conduct their illegal affairs with impunity and buy silence--or coerce it--when necessary. Like the dioramas, this tale is embellished with dark intentions and fairy tale overtones: the damsel in distress, the orphan boy, the revenant come to settle accounts while protecting the innocent, the stunning images of birds costumed as people, “a colony of jackdaws, a tiding of magpies, a storytelling of rooks, a murder of crows”. The gothic estate surrounded by marshes is the perfect scene for murder and revenge--a moment where memory returns and dark skies are illuminated by truth.