Review by Sarah Ward of Crimepieces, from the UK
Although Reginald Hill will be forever associated with the Yorkshire countryside and the inimitable pairing of Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, Hill also had a number of successful standalone books which he used to widen his range of characters and settings. In his later life, Hill resided in Cumbria which provided the backdrop to The Stranger House published in 2005. Although much of the narrative was placed in the small Cumbrian village of Illthwaite, the plot embraced events in 1960s Australia and sixteenth century Spain. These elements combined to produce a thriller unique amongst his body of work.
The narrative opens with Sam Flood, an eleven year old girl living on a farm in the Australian outback. After watching a programme about orphaned children who were sent from England to Australia as part of a child migrant programme she feels an unbearable sense of loss. Years later, Sam travels to England to enjoy a holiday before she starts her studies in Mathematics at Cambridge University. She visits the village of Illthwaite which her paternal grandmother left in the early 1960s and rents a room in the village inn, The Stranger House. Sam notices that her name evokes strange reactions from the villagers and the mystery deepens when she finds the gravestone of a man who shares her name.
Another guest at The Stranger House is Mig Madero, from a sherry-making family, who following a series of religious experiences felt a call to the priesthood. No longer a seminarian, he is in Illthwaite to study the history of the Woollas family, Catholics during the time of religious persecution who sheltered recusant priests in their village. Mig feels a strong sense of affinity with the place and the discovery of documents from the Woollas’s manor house may help him discover why.
Sam Flood struggles to understand the dynamics of the secretive village that closes ranks when she tries to uncover the history of her grandmother’s exile as part of the Child Migrants Programme. She feels threatened by the village’s infamous Gowder twins, although some sympathetic villagers are prepared to reveal glimpses of past secrets. When Sam stumbles on the truth of the events of 1961 she becomes an avenging angel, and finds an ally in Mig.
The Stranger House provides a mystery that combines supernatural elements with physical manifestations of evil. The sense of the mystical is provided mainly through the character of Mig, a frail and other-worldly young man who struggles with the sexual attraction he feels towards first the glamorous Frek Woollas and later Sam. The visions that he continues to receive even in Illthwaite provide the link between sixteenth century Spain and present day Cumbria.
For those who don’t like religion in crime novels, and I know that there are plenty who don’t, the religious aspects of this book are balanced out by the pragmatic atheist Sam Flood, whose mathematical brain prefers to compute facts and figures than deal with human emotions. She is portrayed as a down-to-earth Australian, cutting through the villager’s reticence and wearing her heart on her sleeve when the tragedy of her grandmother’s story is revealed.
There are many of the elements we associate with the Dalziel and Pascoe books, including a wry look at the idiosyncrasies of village life, the focusing on the human dimension of a tragedy (in this case the shipping of orphaned children to Australia) and of course an excellent plot. Although not perhaps mainstream crime fiction The Stranger House really is a wonderful read as all the diverse strands of the book finally come together.
The Second Perspective
Photo of Wainwrights’ Inn, Cumbria courtesy of Curt Evans ofThe Passing Tramp.
Review by Bill Selnes of Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, from Canada
Sam (Samantha) Flood from Australia and Mig (Miguel) Madero from Spain arrive in the northwest England village of Illthwaite looking into family mysteries from the near past, early 1960s, to medieval times (the 1500s). Sam’s mathematical talents and Mig’s supernatural perceptions gradually allow them to penetrate the silences of the people of Illthwaite. The science and art of detection are combined. Sam believes her grandmother was shipped to Australia as part of the Child Migrants Programme (orphans sent away). Mig seeks the history of Simeon Woollas, a Jesuit priest who reputedly traveled through the area where his cousins’ ancestral home was located. Centuries later the Woollas, Winander and Gowder families are still resident. (It was a touch contrived that their lines were all coming to an end.) Hill smoothly and deftly unfolds the tale. Each twist is plausible and adds to the overall story. Sam and Mig find unexpected answers to their quests.