REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r35

The Mermaid’s Call

by Katherine Stansfield

One of the ironies – and a potential drawback – of series novels is that they tend to open with tedious preambles. Authors seem to think they need to recap, in the manner of a weekly TV series – while also indulging in reacquainting their readers with familiar characters. Rankin does it again and again with his Rebus instalments. Novelist Katherine Stansfield, at the opening of the third in her Cornish Mysteries, pads out an introduction over thirty pages in which we learn that the narrator, Shilly, and her sidekick and master-of-disguise Anna, are youthful amateur detectives, that they live in Boscastle – a fact stated time and again – enough decades ago for it to be a twee fishing port rather than a twee tourist honeypot, that they enjoy tea and cake above anything else, and that they are protecting a mute and psychologically stricken German refugee called Mathilda. This last personage cropped up in the previous novel, The Magpie Tree (Winner of the Holyer an Gof Fiction Cup in 2019), and is now a financial sponsor for the hard-pressed detective agency, thanks to an inheritance.

That we are in the realm of the magical mystical is only hinted at for a long while, until Shilly makes it absolutely clear: ‘Anna had asked me to work with her for I could see the parts of the world she couldn’t…. Where Anne saw the cuts a knife made in a young girl’s throat… I felt the dead girl’s anger like a hot brand on my own breast.’ This talent, she says, is a curse more than it is a gift, and routinely fills her with fear. What could have been a tension-sapping fantasy element is, under Stansfield’s deft control, a neat twist: seeing too much is not always seeing what is most useful when it comes to solving a crime.

The mystery proper kicks off with a letter that Anna chooses not to share with her partners and Shilly spotting a woman who has fallen to her death in the roiling North Cornwall sea during a fierce storm – and turns out to be a mermaid. But the actual dead body – around which this novel centres – is that of Joseph, the brother of one Captain Frederick Ians who visits the young women and tells them his sibling was killed by… a mermaid.

For all the prevaricating, the story soon gathers pace and builds intrigue as the daring duo make trips to Morwenstow, Bude and Coombe and interrogate a series of motley locals, discover clue after clue, and make ample use of dreams, visions, tattoos, and other less orthodox resources. To anchor the story in a real time – the mid-nineteenth-century – the narrative is peppered with tidbits from history, such as the wreckers who used to flash lights from rocky shores to cause treasure-bearing ships to run aground, and references to local saints and Saxon kings.

Stansfield has a sure hand for description, turning the Cornish landscapes into a fateful life-force that presents obstacles to the investigation but also provides the spectral hints that keep the investigation alive. The wild drama of the region’s weather is carefully woven into the story, the harrying winds and sea-spray helping blur the line between coast and sea, between sharp reality and hazy fantasy.

If the secondary characters are to some extent stock-historical – Poldark fans will surely enjoy the likes of the pensive parson (based on the real life Anglican priest and poet Robert Hawker) and the angst-ridden Captain Ians – the relationship between Anna and Shilly is seamed with a degree of sexual tension and feels modern. Shilly has a taste for drink which distresses and angers Anna, and is also candid about her illiteracy. Both women are proto-feminists, Anna wincing at references to the ‘fairer sex’. The dialogue between them is always engaging and the frantic final chapters, as the case is solved, make up for the slow start.

Taken altogether, this rich mix of setting, mystery, betrayal, grief, local lore, and Shilly’s unique clairvoyance make The Mermaid’s Call an unusual and, in the end, beguiling novel. Not all the loose ends are tied up – and Mathilda’s muteness extends to her insignificance in the unfolding plot – but those who have already bought into this original fictional world will enjoy this latest case, and will be left wanting more.

Chris Moss is a travel writer.


previous review: Sliced Tongue and Pearl Cufflinks
next review: The House Without Windows


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