A riveting mystery thriller

2011-12-21 00:00

PETER Robinson’s series detective, D. C. I. Banks has, during the course of 19 outings, turned into the most boring P. C. Plod in fiction. May we hope that Banks has finally hung up his helmet? As this non-Banks novel confirms, Robinson remains a good writer ­prepared to do serious research in order to give us an interesting take on a well-worn theme.

Chris Lowndes, composer of ­music for Oscar-winning Hollywood films, returns to his roots in the Yorkshire Dales but, alas, without his beloved wife Laura.

A widower now, he needs to make a new life for himself and, sight ­unseen, buys a spacious house in a remote spot. But Kilnsgate House holds a secret: decades earlier, a local doctor had died there, and his wife, convicted of his murder by poisoning, was one of the last people in England to be hanged.

Lonely, unable to concentrate on his music, Lowndes is fascinated by the story of Grace Elizabeth Fox and, having come into possession of the ­diary she kept during her days as a Queen Alexandra’s Nurse during World War 2, arrives at a conclusion very different from that reached at her trial.

The diary forms the heart of the novel: from its pages we learn appalling facts about the privations endured by English nurses who, having volunteered to staff hospitals and field ­stations in Singapore and elsewhere in the East, struggled to help ­thousands of wounded and dying servicemen in increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, conditions.

Many nurses died in ghastly ­circumstances — on the spot, in ­Japanese captivity, or while des­perately trying to escape. And at the end of it all, those few who survived were ­encouraged to bury the unspeakable memories, never mention them to their families, and return to lives as “normal” wives and mothers.

Which Grace had done — yet she had been irrevocably changed by the experience. Did she, a dedicated nurse whose first instinct was ­always to strive to save life, ­deliberately poison her awful husband?

The journey Lowndes takes with her not only solves the mystery, but also helps reopen windows on the world that he had thought forever closed to him. Well-constructed, ­well-written, this is a solidly good read.

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