A Final Reckoning by Susan Moody
Perhaps it’s a rather trivial emotion when you start reading a new book and find a sense of coming home. And, in a way, that’s a paradox. Since it’s a new book, by definition the reader cannot literally be returning. But there’s always a sense of relief after spending so long wandering the corridors of foreign cultures, to once again pick up a book written in what I’ll choose to describe as classic British English. Those of you who read more than one of these reviews may be allowed a slightly ironic smile. I have, on many occasions, admitted to misspending much of my youth reading American pulp fiction. However, in my defence, I must also confess reading a vast selection of early and contemporary British fiction from the 1950s onwards. My schooling with its emphasis on learning both Latin and Ancient Greek also consolidated a feel for grammatical proprieties and a rich vocabulary. Hence, although I get lazy and continue to indulge my passion for stylistic simplicity, it does create a pleasing resonance when I begin a book like A Final Reckoning by Susan Moody (Severn House, 2013). Some of the prose is rather beautiful.
This introductory rumination also grows out of the book because it’s about memory and the way in which we address the past. As an individual, I have years of sentience to choose from when I select the events to mull. When the mood is well-balanced, I can survey the bad alongside the good with some degree of equanimity. No-one comes through life unscathed. At other times, the more unfortunate memories can surface and leave me a little down. At my age, family and friends have died. Only a few peers survive. It’s easy to feel lonely. At the beginning of this book, a young girl is with her mother and father when they receive the news that her sister is one of three people murdered. It’s not comparable, but I was a little younger when my paternal grandmother died. We were good friends but the scale of loss doesn’t match up. Yet, the last time I visited my home town about sixteen years ago, I drove past the house where she used to live. There’s always a temptation to want to say goodbye. As a boy, I didn’t have the emotional maturity to speak the right words (or even to understand how I ought to feel). With a lifetime separating us, I could finally say the words an older person might or should have said at the time.
So after twenty-three years when this book’s heroine accidentally sees an opportunity to visit the country house where her sister had been murdered, there’s a temptation to go. Not that she can heal the emotional wound or, indeed, expects to find any closure from the experience. But it’s something she feels she ought to do. After standing empty for some time, the house has been converted into a boutique hotel. There’s a special introductory offer. Once she’s paid the deposit, she feels embarrassed at the thought of backing out. Yet, what’s most surprising when she finally arrives, is how many of these guests have some connection to that past tragedy. It’s as if everything is still unresolved for so many people. Even though there was a trial and the official record shows a finding of “guilt” for the deaths, nothing is ever completely as it seems. With the benefit of hindsight, people thrown together in this situation often find themselves able to say what they could not say all those years ago. Motives change, perspective shift, a different set of rules for honesty comes into play if trust can be gained. At the end of the weekend, there must be a return to the real world but, of course, now she’s met people and she has doubts. . . Well one of the people she met was a young police officer who attended the scene. If they could just put their heads together, who knows what they might come up with. The book then shifts from a conventional investigation in a country house setting to a format more associated with romantic thriller. To some extent this is inevitable. The passage of twenty-three years forces our heroine to adapt her investigative strategies to match current needs to earn a living and seek some personal happiness.
Indeed that’s the particularly fascinating quality to this book. By convention, everyone picking up this volume expects there to be an alternative explanation of the murders. We read books like this because we enjoy problem-solving. In this case, there certainly seems to be something wrong with the general sequence of events leading up to this particular Christmas which ended in such disaster. There are hints and revelations about changes in behaviour, about an earlier death, and there’s some artwork missing. Putting it all together is a delight. As is required, our heroine meets the right people at the right time, and can overhear other conversations when it’s most useful. Such coincidences are necessarily overlooked as the conventions of investigation and detection for use by authors of mystery fiction. In this book, everything is done with such consummate skill, you forgive all the contrivances because the totality of the explanation emerging at the end is so satisfying. It’s as you would expect from an author with more than thirty books behind her. A Final Reckoning is beautifully written with occasional metafictional touches to comment on how the story is being told. The plot itself is elegantly constructed. There’s no better way to pass time than by reading books like this.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.