Written by Victoria Best
Broadstairs, Kent in the early summer of 1951, and visitors are arriving to spend extended holidays on its beaches. Edmund Steele, a middle-aged medical man has left London to escape a love affair that might otherwise have entangled him. But he has also come on the bidding of a friend to keep an eye on his host, local vicar Theo Hallum. Not so very long ago, Hallum returned from missionary service in Africa with a fiancée who died en route, and the guilt has fuelled his religiosity into an unhealthy fervour. Renting nearby are two American cousins, Delphine Beck and Julia Mardell. Delphine is running from a shameful past, whilst Julia hides the disfiguring birthmark on her face under a veil, and neither is inclined to be sociable. Broadstairs has been chosen by them as a place where Delphine can paint and where the fresh sea air and sparkling sea might offer them a variety of natural respites as strangers among a host of summer tourists.
Anonymity is not to be their fate, however. For Theo has a formidable aunt, Mrs Quillian: ‘She was wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked, and had the kind of nimble movements which showed that he had long enjoyed climbing mountains, making tours and arranging excursions, and was not the kind of woman to make a fuss over small things.’ Mrs Quillian is on the lookout for congenial companions with whom to enjoy the delights of the region. She swiftly enlists Edmund and Theo along with Delphine and Julia, and complicates matters further by adding to the party a bohemian and somewhat irritatingly flirtatious artist, Ralph Benedict, along with the nervy and strait-laced matron, Miss Waring and her young, beautiful companion, Alba. This ill-assorted party soon embarks on a number of trips and excursions that frequently run into trouble; for Broadstairs is also host to a serial killer.
Delphine is heading out to the beach to set up her easel when she realises from the furtive and panicked actions of the men around her that something is wrong. Insistent that she should accompany them to the scene of the accident, she overcomes their protests and warnings. In the end, the scene she witnesses is artistically tragic rather than gory; a young girl with broken seashells entangled in her long blonde curls lying as if asleep, with the words drawn in the sand alongside her ‘White as snow.’ The discovery of the body shocks Delphine, but not in the way that the men around her expect:
‘The dead girl’s vulnerable body, lying on the sand, had woken some deep pain in her. Her normal calmness had not reasserted itself; instead she found, reawakened, her bitter distrust of the world which had sprung into life one distant week in New York. And not for the first time, she wondered if Julia carried that in her too – a distrust so deep it felt like a wound.’
And so the storylines entwine around one another. The death of the young girl is linked in some way with Delphine and Julia’s past, though we will have to wait until the climax of the novel for all the different pieces of the puzzle to fit together. In the meantime, the start of each chapter contains a fragment of the ‘widow’s confession’, a letter written by Delphine to an unknown recipient, explaining her past. Though as the story unfolds, those fragments serve mostly as teasers for the intrigue in the chapter to come. And as the group of summer visitors continue their excursions, the intrigue deepens. Not only are more bodies found – which the local doctor, Dr Crisp, refuses to take seriously as murder victims – but tensions arise within the group, too. Ralph Benedict makes a play for both Delphine and Alba, Edmund becomes smitten with Julia, and Miss Waring’s fears of impropriety make for an uncomfortable atmosphere.
Although the deaths of the young girls bring a strangely modern element into this historical novel, the strongest part of the narrative is the evocation of the Victorian era, with its fierce policing of women and its rigid insistence on respectability and rules. Sophia Tobin creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, thick with tensions and fears, in which the smallest lapse on the part of her characters could result in social disgrace. This same fervid and righteous spirit turns out to be the driving force behind the killings, which feels satisfyingly coherent. The sense of looming menace reminded me repeatedly of Daphne du Maurier, who was also content to allow her plot to develop slowly and to use ambience as a compelling force within her stories. The closely observed interactions between her characters provide the focus of Sophia Tobin’s narrative, and they have an authentic feel of another time and place entirely.
This is a beautifully written novel that resolves its secrets – of Delphine’s past, of the Broadstairs killings – with clever sleight of hand. I didn’t appreciate the fragments of Delphine’s confession which opened the chapters – they felt irrelevant to me, and intrusive on the plot – but this is a minor quibble. If you like historical thrillers, this is a fine example of the genre.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Sophia Tobin, The Widow’s Confession (Simon & Schuster: January 2015) 978-1471128127, 384 pages, hardback.