When Malfi Fanshawe, a junior editor from Fulham, inherits a decaying stately home in a remote corner of Norfolk, the news is as much of a shock to her as anyone. With her late mother disinherited after a failed marriage to an Italian writer, Malfi has long abandoned any hope that she would ever set eyes on Underwood Hall again. She is focused on her life in London, her career in publishing and her on-off relationship with Adrian Atherton, a thrice-married economics guru. Following the death of her fiancé, who was killed in Afghanistan, Malfi has drifted into a string of doomed relationships.
Intrigued despite her misgivings, Malfi drives up to Underwood Hall herself to discover why her Great Uncle William, an eccentric baronet, has willed the old house to her and not to her handsome, successful cousin, Guy. But, by returning to Underwood, Malfi is going back to an old house with bad memories and secrets she has hidden from herself since childhood. Underwood Hall was once the scene of a terrible crime which was only ever referred to as ‘the Tragedy’ and which drove her uncle further and further into eccentricity and isolation.
On the way up to Norfolk, Malfi learns that a schoolgirl, Sasha Thomas, has disappeared from a neighbouring village, but tries to persuade herself that this can be no more than a coincidence and have nothing to do with ‘the tragedy’ years earlier. At Underwood, Malfi meets the old housekeeper, Mrs Flint or ‘Flinty’, and her son Tom, recently discharged from the army, who now acts as handyman and gamekeeper. Agreeing to stay the night, Malfi is surprised by a visit from Guy Fanshawe, her distant cousin, who bears her no ill will and tells her she is welcome to the place. That night, Malfi recalls a disturbing incident during her childhood, when Sir William apparently tried to shoot himself and she and her mother fled the Hall. The next morning, walking in the park, Malfi meets an old friend of her mother’s, Colonel Alex Fox. Shortly afterwards, they discover the body of a young woman in the lake.
After an initial visit from the local constabulary, the case is mysteriously assigned to the Metropolitan Police, and Chief Inspector Daniel Cathcart and his sergeant arrive from London. While the household are at pains to reassure that this case has no connection with ‘the tragedy,’ Malfi is convinced that there is some link. Meanwhile, a visit to a local restaurant leads to a showdown when Sasha’s father confronts a horrified Malfi and accuses of being callous. Shortly afterwards, it becomes apparent that the body found in the lake is not that of Sasha Thomas, but another woman who cannot be identified.
Malfi’s own suspicions range in turn between Tom Flint, the son of housekeeper Flinty, Malfi’s cousin Guy, and even the Colonel himself. She takes comfort from Adrian, who insists on travelling up from London to see her, and who, while impressed by Underwood Hall, is clearly amused by Malfi’s sudden elevation to the ranks of the minor aristocracy. During his visit, Malfi tells Adrian about the events leading up to ‘the tragedy’, in which a local girl, Amber Lavender, was found murdered after the village fete, a killing that went unsolved. Malfi knows more than she is letting on about the tragedy, but is unable to recall it, although she has constant recurring nightmares about the night Amber was killed.
When Cathcart informs Malfi that Tom Flint has a conviction for domestic violence, Malfi suspects that he may be the killer but in a dramatic scene Tom admits that he attacked his ex-wife as a result of PDST but is now undergoing therapy to deal with his behaviour. He is adamant that he is not a murderer.
Unwilling to return to London while the investigation is under way, Malfi spends her time exploring Underwood Hall and remembering further details of her childhood which might be relevant to the case. Reading Uncle William’s old manuscripts, she discovers references to ‘the boy’, a talented but troubled young man who made regular visits to Underwood Hall and who seems to have had some sort of power over Uncle William.
Questioned by Cathcart, for whom she is developing an unwanted attraction, Malfi recalls further details about the tragedy, and suspects that one young man, Laurence Martin, may have killed Amber, although Malfi did not really understand what she was seeing at the time. Malfi and Cathcart visit Laurence’s father’s old cottage, where they find the remains of Laurence’s father, long dead, and a chest freezer which has been used to store a body.
Meanwhile, Malfi travels back to London at the request of Adrian, who needs to speak to her urgently. Adrian, who has just been offered the role of Master at a Cambridge college, suggests that he and Malfi should marry, something he had always refused to contemplate in the past. While considering the implications of this offer, Malfi visits her old home and recalls a brief but devastating incident, when she slept with the colonel following her mother’s funeral.
Bumping into the colonel at the station, Malfi discovers that he has been in London all day, too. As they are travelling back to Norfolk, Malfi discovers that Adrian has been killed on the underground after falling under a train. The following day, the colonel reveals that Adrian had been pushed off the platform by an unknown assailant.
Back in Norfolk, there is still no sign of Sasha Thomas, the young girl who has been abducted locally despite an extensive search, door to door enquires and appeals in the media. Meanwhile, Malfi’s flatmate, Charlotte arrives at Underwood to provide moral support and help Malfi prepare for Adrian’s funeral.
DCI Cathcart informs Malfi that the current murder investigation at Underwood has been frozen, due to lack of progress, and that he has been reassigned to another case. However, he suggests Malfi accompanies him to Cambridge to explore one last lead, Laurence Martin’s former tutor, Dr De’Ath. It emerges that Dr De’Ath suspected Laurence of being involved in an incident years earlier, when a girl drowned during a May Ball. On their way back to Underwood, Cathcart tells Malfi his own motive for joining the police force. Years earlier, when Cathcart was a child, his father had murdered his mother.
Malfi travels back to London with the colonel for Adrian’s funeral at Highgate Cemetery. She remains in London with the colonel, who she has come to regard as her lost shot at happiness. Desperate for stability, Malfi suggests that they marry, despite the colonel’s protests that he is far too old for her and she should find someone more suitable.
When they return to Underwood the following day, Malfi discovers that Charlotte has disappeared. She searches the Hall to discover a young girl being held prisoner, and also confronts Laurence Martin, who has been hiding at Underwood. The girl is Sasha Thomas. Laurence, having lost the remnants of his sanity, attacks Malfi and pursues her through the underground tunnel which runs between the kitchen and the stables. As Malfi turns the corner she finds her way blocked by Flinty, carrying one of Tom’s shotguns. Flinty shoots Laurence but he escapes, seizes Charlotte’s car and heads for the remote Martello Tower on the beach. Malfi follows, with the colonel and they reach the tower to discover Tom, who has been protecting Laurence, and who is Laurence’s half-brother. Tom and Laurence struggle, Malfi attempts to shoot Laurence but misses, and Tom and Laurence both fall to their deaths.
In the aftermath, it is discovered that Laurence was also Flinty’s son, and that she and Tom had attempted to protect him, despite the fact that he was a murderer. The final straw for Tom, and indeed for Flinty, had been when Laurence turned on Malfi, and they had felt it their duty to protect her. Laurence also emerges as the killer of Adrian, having pushed him under an underground train in order to ‘punish’ Malfi. The body in the lake is revealed to be that of a Hungarian woman, Annika Bartok, who Laurence had met online. Laurence’s modus operandi consisted of ensnaring impressionable young women with promises of musical celebrity, and he had used a similar method to capture Sasha, claiming that he could introduce her to important figures in the industry. It also emerges that Flinty had originally taken up the post with Sir William after a series of suspicious deaths at the nursing home she had run in the North of England.
Despite the tragic events at Underwood, Malfi decides to keep the Hall and open it to the public. She feels a sense of obligation towards the house, and to what happened there. Malfi begins restoration work, traces her Italian father, by now a successful crime writer, and makes her peace with him. Charlotte, meanwhile, forges a happy alliance with Guy. Malfi marries the colonel, only to lose him two years later in a mysterious car accident, the real cause of which is never discovered.
In the final scenes, we see Malfi at Underwood, opening the gift shop and preparing to show visitors around the Hall, just as Cathcart arrives. It emerges that Malfi has written to him, and together they walk down to the lake to look at the memorial Malfi has built in memory of the women murdered at Underwood.
Catharine Arnold is the author of the much-acclaimed London quartet, a series of books about the dark side of the capital, consisting of Necropolis, London and its Dead, Bedlam, London and its Mad, City of Sin, London and its Vices and Underworld, London City of Crime and Punishment. (All Simon & Schuster). City of Sin has been published in the United States as The Sexual History of London (St Martin’s Press.) Catharine Arnold’s latest book, Globe, Life in Shakespeare’s London was published by Simon and Schuster in April 2015. Catharine’s first novel, Lost Time, ...
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