The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes
Called to give evidence to the inquest, all four point-of-view characters of this Victorian crime novel have something to hide. Thomas Churcher, a shy young man whom his neighbours believe to be lacking in intelligence, has been seen walking out with her; Frances Williams, her fellow teacher and classic outsider, loved Harriet as more than a friend. Both Verrall, and Richard Field, her former landlord in London, have had sex with her, not always with her consent.
Coroner and jury hear the witness testimonies, not only from these four but from other townsfolk, including Harriet’s mother and sister and the members of her church. But no verdict is returned until, over two years later, the inquest is reopened, along with old wounds. Despite additional insights through the reverend’s “confession” and Harriet’s diary, the reader is kept guessing as to the identity of the murderer until the very end.
Stumbling upon the unresolved murder case from 1843 in the National Archives, Elizabeth Haynes felt compelled to seek literary justice for Harriet and her unborn child. I found the writing strong, the characters interesting and I enjoyed the depiction of smalltown life – particularly religious hubris and the suspicion of independent women – of almost two centuries ago. But I felt she was too faithful to her source material in the drawn-out inquest, as the mystery doesn’t justify a novel almost 500 pages long. More typical crime readers might disagree.
Thanks to Myriad Editions for my review copy. For another novel about a breakaway church, this time in Scotland, see my review of In the Blink of an Eye.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Based on the true story of the Donner party, Alma Katsu directs her large cast of characters, and their differing motivations and foibles, with ease (although it inevitably takes longer for the reader to distinguish who’s who). She zooms in on some of the more quirky among them: Charles Stanton, a decent man burdened by another’s guilt; James Bryant, who leaves the party early seeking answers to a niggling question about Native American spirituality; Elitha Donner, a teenager who hears voices; Tamsen, her stepmother, a herbalist shunned as a witch.
The titular hunger doesn’t wait until supplies run out to hit them. It encroaches on the camp when the first child goes missing from his tent. Discovering his body some days later, the flesh stripped from his bones, the men insist it must be wolves. But the evidence mounts of something yet more disturbing. By the time they can face the truth, it might be too late.
Although I was expecting a story about cannibalism, I wasn’t sure what to make of this thread. Bryant develops some theories about a strange infection from his halting conversations with Washoe people, and the medical speculation reminded me of another affliction purging people of their humanity in The People in the Trees. But it transformed a story of hubris and exploration into a horror story when, for me, there was horror enough in the group dynamics and the cruelty of the climate and terrain.
Thanks to Bantam press for my proof copy.