St Martin's, 2010, ISBN 978-0-312-56294-6, 300 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher. Published in the UK under the title A Moment of Silence.
Bellfield Hall is a historical mystery set among the country gentry of southern England in 1805. All the characters and events are fictional.
Miss Dido Kent is an unmarried lady of modest means, and thus a convenient source of on-tap unpaid domestic help to her assorted brothers and their families. When her niece Catherine begs her to come to Bellfield Hall, where her fiance has mysteriously released her from their engagement and disappeared, Dido obliges at once. She soon realises that there is something much deeper going on than Catherine's broken engagement, for on the very day of Dido's arrival an unknown young woman is found lying murdered in the shrubbery. Is the murder connected with the abrupt departure of Catherine's fiance? Who is the young woman and how did she come by her death? Is there a murderer among the family, guests and servants at Bellfield Hall? Dido has to solve the mystery if her dear niece is to have any chance of marriage and happiness - but little does she know that her own heart may be imperilled in the process.
I have a great regard for Jane Austen's novels, and a corresponding wariness of the assorted spin-offs, sequels and - heaven forfend - zombie mash-ups that have appeared since it became universally acknowledged that her work was not only popular but also easily marketable and long out of copyright. So I thought more than twice about reviewing Bellfield Hall, and only decided to give it a try after finding an excerpt on the publisher's website and concluding that the writing looked promising. I'm glad I did, as Bellfield Hall turned out to be a very pleasant read.
Dido Kent is by far the most strongly developed character. Shrewd, clever, compassionate and observant, Dido is accustomed to conjuring new dresses and roast dinners out of a small income and applies the same resourcefulness to mystery solving. She has a gift for winning confidences from the servants and for putting a lot of apparently inconsequential details together to make a whole. If the customs of her society permitted her to set up as a Ladies' Detective Agency - which of course they don't - she would undoubtedly have been an immediate success.
One of the features I admire in historical fiction is a story that is anchored in its particular time and place and can't easily be shifted to another setting just by changing the props. Bellfield Hall achieves this admirably. The mystery and Dido's solving of it depend on little details of contemporary society, such as mealtimes, correct forms of address, the quality of cloth and the precise details of women's fashions. Dido misses very little about the people and the world around her, and has a fund of common sense and a broad understanding of human foibles to allow her to draw conclusions from what she sees. Not that she understands everything, though - a modern reader will have no difficulty in working out the aspects of Colonel Walborough's behaviour that leave Dido completely mystified.
The tone and style of language and dialogue has the right sort of feel for the period, and there are one or two nice turns of phrase, e.g. "All the gentlemen were gone to the inquest and the ladies were left with nothing to do but settle the verdict among themselves without the inconvenience of considering any evidence."
The mystery plot is neatly constructed with a suitably large collection of suspects, all of whom have their own secrets to hide, and plenty of red herrings to draw the reader away on false trails. Clues are cleverly laid in the text for the reader to find, but so subtly that I only picked up most of them on a second reading. Furthermore, Dido solves the mystery without stepping outside the bounds of behaviour acceptable for a nice respectable lady spinster among the gentry of Regency England. Maybe Dido is perhaps a little too lucky at always happening to be in the right place at the right time to talk to someone who can give her the next piece of the puzzle, and I have to admit I was a little baffled by the sub-plot involving the Misses Harris, which seemed a shade too ingenious to be effective, but it all ties up nicely in the end.
The ending provides a clear lead-in to a sequel, so I expect we shall meet Miss Dido Kent again. I for one will be happy to do so.
Charming light Regency mystery with authentic-feeling period detail and a most resourceful and likeable heroine.