I have been in a reading rut since January–I haven’t been able to get into anything, the things I do read are so slow and dragging I don’t want to recommend them, it’s all been very meh. But I recently ran across The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret by Catherine Bailey–it’s not a perfect book, but I enjoyed it and it gave my reading a kick start.
Bailey is a historian who was granted access to the extensive records maintained by one of England’s aristocratic families so she could write a book about the experience of British soldiers in World War I. But as she starts her research, she find strange gaps in the records, gaps that were clearly deliberately created. She gets drawn into researching these gaps and learning what one of the former Dukes was trying to conceal. The story is told chronologically from Bailey’s perspective, so the reader is discovering what’s missing and what it might mean right along with the author. Am I making this sound boring? It’s actually a page turner, and I found myself thinking things like, “It’s midnight and I have to work in the morning, but I have to read one more chapter to read what she found in the attic!” (Full disclosure: I was a history major, so I might have been predisposed to find a description of primary source research fascinating.)
The reason I’m not jumping up and down and telling everyone to go find this immediately is that I found the actual solution to the mystery a bit of a let down. This was partly because I’m not sure the mystery could live up to all the hype (spoiler: when the subtitle talks about a haunted castle, it’s being metaphorical). But also, I’m not sure the book did enough to put the Duke’s secret into context for the modern reader. I had to draw on my own knowledge of 20th century British history to understand why the big reveal would have been so scandalous, and I wish the book had included one more chapter that could have better placed the whole situation in its time. (I’m trying not to give away the mystery, but I’ll be happy to discuss more spcific details in the comments.) Also, there were some very detailed descriptions of World War I battles, which really bogged things down and left me feeling like Bailey was determined that the initial research she did on WWI wouldn’t go to waste. But those are really small quibbles. I really enjoyed this and was impressed with Bailey’s ability to make a book about archival research read like a thriller. If you’re feeling a bit of Downton Abbey withdrawal, this might hit the spot.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Intriguing, if anti-climatic.
You might also like: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. This is one of my favorite books ever, and the real reason I wrote this post. Tey wrote a series of books set in the early 1950s about a Scotland Yard detective named Alan Grant. In most of them, he’s out solving mysteries as usual, but in this one, he’s stuck in a hospital bed recovering from a back injury. He’s wildly bored, so a friend decides to occupy him with historical mysteries, and he gets fixated on finding out whether Richard III really killed the two princes in the tower. The entire book is basically him, in traction, thinking, while the folks helping him describe the things they have found in the library. And it is SO GOOD. Really, go read this.