The Christmas of 1889 is fast approaching and the members of the Thursday Night Murder Games Club are settling in for some much-deserved relaxation, beginning with a cozy meal at the home of their patroness, Geraldine Bainbridge. But a frantic knock at the door changes everything. Geraldine’s friend Tess has come to beg for their help, explaining that her eighteen year old daughter Anna has run off with a portrait painter named LaRusse Chapman. The two of them have escaped to the countryside of Kent, where LaRusse presides over a colony of gypsy-like and half-starving artists. The group – which espouses any number of shockingly liberal causes, including “free love” – has taken up residence in the dilapidated Hever Castle, the abandoned childhood home of Queen Anne Boleyn.
Within hours, Scotland Yard detectives Trevor Welles and Rayley Abrams are headed south on an unofficial mission to bring Anna at least back to London, if not to her senses. But they are scarcely within the crumbling walls of the castle when they realize that the place if far more sinister than they expected. LaRusse Chapman is not merely a seducer of young girls, but a man teetering on the brink of madness. His painting in process, The Angel of Hever Castle, seems to magically change itself each night, with the face of the Madonna morphing from one woman to another. And when Trevor and Rayley encounter a ghostly figure in white on the meadows surrounding the castle, they begin to question their own sanity. Has the spell of Hever Castle engulfed them as well?
This is a novella rather than a full novel and as such is classed as “4.5” in the Thursday Night Murder Games Club series. It’s just before Christmas in 1889, and some of the members of the club are round at Geraldine’s house, decorating it in the latest Christmas fashion – a tree in the hall with candles on it, which most of the men see as a fire hazard. This cozy group is interrupted by the arrival of Tess, with a plea to rescue her daughter Anna, who has disappeared off to Hever Castle with a bohemian portrait painter who may well have already compromised her reputation.
Within 24 hours, Trevor and Rayley are on their way to Hever Castle, where they find a disturbing set up – LaRusse clearly has a dominating hold over everyone in the group, but especially the women, who are all at the mercy (sexually and otherwise) of any and all men in the group. The two men undertake their own investigations, and during the solstice party (when the rest of the community are getting drunk), the two investigate LaRusse’s living quarters. There they find a portrait that is, to all intents and purposes, of Anna, but has the face of someone else. Their investigations are interrupted by doors slamming, lights going out, and a figure in white disappearing into the distance.
There is much to learn with regards to the painter’s work, including the processes of mixing their own paints (including the use of the madness inducing lead when making white), whilst in town Geraldine makes investigations of her own…..
It’s a novella, so by definition rather short. Some situations and characterisation is shortened, and this is the 4.5 in the series, so many of the characters will/should have been already established. The tale itself was a much stronger story than I thought it would be, considering the length and position (.5 books are often short fillers between their bigger siblings and are therefore usually light to the touch). I have not read others in the series, but would certainly consider reading more, in order to see if the standard is even higher than this!