The insular small town of Saltleigh, located on a dark English estuary. A crumbling home known as the Crooked House, “its foundations unsteady in the mud, out on its own in the dusk.” A long-ago brutal family murder, coming back to haunt the present.
A few pages into Christobel Kent’s novel “The Crooked House,” we find we are in that most satisfying of places: murder most British. Not too cozy (no cats solving crime, and certainly no vicars), but not a chain of improbable serial killers slashing their way through our pages. Rather, this is a taut psychological thriller, loaded with mood, and a puzzle tricky enough to keep you guessing to the final page. Even the title is an homage to a work by Agatha Christie. After we lost some of our greatest doyennes of crime — Ruth Rendell and P.D. James — Kent’s book is a delightful reminder that absorbing and clever crime novels still exist.
The protagonist is Alison, a guarded woman who lives in London as anonymously as she can. This is because her past is too impossible to contemplate. She used to be Esme, living an average family life in the ramshackle Crooked House, until the day in her early teens when her mother, brother and two sisters are brutally killed. Even worse, the police decide that her father, who was shot but somehow survived, is the culprit. Esme flees, moving to Cornwall with an aunt, changing her name and trying to forget her past. She has never returned to Saltleigh, and never confronted what happened there. But then Alison’s boyfriend, Paul, invites her to a wedding in her home town and, desperate to keep him, she agrees to go.
Old sins have long shadows, and once back on that dark marsh, Alison starts to wonder whether her father is the true killer. The story toggles between flashbacks in Saltleigh, all leading up to the horrible night of the murders, and Alison’s attempts to make it through the wedding of her boyfriend’s horrible posh ex while also trying to discreetly suss out what happened all those years ago.
“The Crooked House” is a wellconstructed tale with a clever premise and a strong sense of atmosphere. The town of Saltleigh seems real, from its isolated location and parochial locals to the clear class divisions between the town, where Esme grew up, and the gentry, where Alison is now precariously involved. Kent’s portrait of life on the tidal estuary is particularly compelling. We can almost smell the brackish sea air, and Kent manages to make the town seem oppressive and menacing without too much foreboding. The characters are expertly sketched to seem like real people, rather than the bizarre casts of eccentrics that sometimes populate mystery fiction. Alison, in particular, although sometimes maddeningly independent, is believable; her losses are a reasonable justification for her actions and inability to trust anyone.
Still, at times the novel feels just too dark — with one or two tragedies thrown on the pile, on top of the killing of Alison’s family. Kent is hardly the first psychological thriller writer to weave such a stark tale, but a little lightness would have made this engaging novel even more so.
Carrie Dunsmore is a lawyer who blogs at queenofbooklandia.com.
By Christobel Kent
Sarah Crichton. 357 pp. $26