Book Review

Photo by Mike Cassidy on Unsplash

Cragside, by L.J. Ross

What attracted me to this book initially was the very tangential connection I have with the place, which actually exists, although I have never visited it or worked there myself; the latter is more relevant, because some of my acting colleagues have worked there in a rôle-playing capacity, responding directly with members of the public who visit this property, which is managed by the National Trust, although in the story, it has continued in private ownership from its earlier owner in the 1800s, William [later Lord] Armstrong. The description in the book slightly exaggerates the gothic eccentricity of the building, although the book’s cover does show an accurate pictorial rendering, and it does indeed possess a variety of features not present in most large manor houses: it was first built as a shooting lodge for Armstrong in 1862-4, but it was enlarged until assuming its present form in 1882, and it was the first house in the world to be lit using hydroelectric power. The detailed Wikipedia page about it can be found here.

All of Louise Ross’s DCI Ryan stories are set in, or near, glorious Northumberland, where she was born and, again, now lives. Detective Chief Inspector Maxwell Finley-Ryan; generally known just as Ryan, partly to distance himself from his privileged background; is renting a cottage in the grounds of the eponymous stately pile, because his apartment was contaminated by his previous case, when he fought a murderous criminal known as the Hacker, so he has decided to sell the apartment. Ryan’s fiancée, Doctor Anna Taylor, lost more in the way of property in the course of the case than he did, because her Durham riverside cottage was destroyed in a fire, so she is sharing the longterm holiday cottage with Ryan for the summer while they recuperate and think about wedding plans, as well as working: Anna is finalising her latest historical textbook, on Viking Northumberland, before the start of a new academic term. After residing peacefully on the estate for almost four months, they are invited to a murder-mystery-themed party [actually the staff summer party], which is an indication that they have been accepted into “Cragside’s select community”. Very predictably, this is where the story really starts!

During the course of the evening, the current owners’ valet, Victor Swann, a well-preserved man in his seventies, is found dead; initially, the circumstances are interpreted as non-suspicious, and ostensibly & tragically accidental, given that he appeared to have hit his head as a result of a fall down some stone cellar steps, but Ryan—no doubt using his detective’s well-honed sixth sense [something most of them seem to possess: the good ones, anyway]—has indefinable suspicions. He then has to assert his authority to lead the enquiries, and before long, another death occurs: although it could also have been accidental, it would seem much less likely than the previous one. Up to this point, the reader is left to wonder how the event described in the prologue, which occurred forty-one years previously, in the summer of 1975, connects with the current scenario: a ship under construction on Tyneside explodes in a fireball, killing many shipbuilding workers, and consequently leaving many children fatherless; but it should not be too difficult, as the narrative progresses, to arrive at the conclusion that the deaths are somehow connected with someone’s obsessive quest for revenge, although this does not become clear until quite late in the story.

Overall, this is a well-constructed story, and the perpetrator was not at all obvious: it could have been easy to be misled, which is the mark of a good writer. Ross has written fifteen DCI Ryan stories, including this one, so there is plenty of opportunity to become familiar with the main characters; she has also written three novels featuring the character of forensic psychologist Doctor Alexander Gregory, who is based in Ireland. Criminal profilers is another popular crime genre, these days. Despite Northumberland famously being Vera territory, there is surely room for another senior detective based in the same area, and Ryan is, necessarily of course, a horse of a different feather than the rumpled & overweight beloved detective creation of Ann Cleeves. The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2017, LJ Ross] by Dark Skies Publishing, ISBN 978-1-9123-1006-7.