THE CURIOUS AFFAIR OF THE WITCH AT WAYSIDE CROSS
by Lisa Tuttle
Jo Fletcher Books, p/b, £16.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
One of the issues that readers often forget is that in earlier historical periods, social mores were very different. Lisa Tuttle has set this series of books in the late Victorian period and this is the second to feature the investigators Jesperson and Lane (the first was The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief). This was a period when respectable single women did not venture out without a companion or a chaperone. The working relationship between Jasper Jesperson and Aphrodite Lane would be held unusual and in some quarters, scandalous yet such a partnership makes sense. Other women are less likely to confide in a man and men won’t necessarily talk to meaningfully to one of the ‘frivolous’ sex. When at home in London, although they live in the same house Miss Lane is chaperoned by the presence of Jasper’s mother, so the arrangement is respectable and convenient.
The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross opens in a dramatic fashion. As Jasper opens the door late one night to furious knocking, a man, Charles Manning, stumbles in and dies in the hallway. Although the physician called to examine the body cites natural causes (remember there is no forensic science in this period), something seems off kilter – for example, why did he knock at their door? Being considerate, Jesperson and Lane call on the dead man’s brother, believing he would wish to know the circumstances of Manning’s death. As a result, they find themselves heading to Norfolk. At this point, there is no real evidence of foul play, just a feeling that the situation is odd, especially as Manning was the friend of Felix Ott, who is the leader of a movement to go back to the basics of religion combining folklore and Ancient Wisdom.
Jesperson and Lane find lodgings at the vicarage of Aylmerton, where Manning also stayed, and immediately become surrounded by mysteries. Close to the village are the ‘Shrieking Pits’, hollows in the ground of unknown origin, though there are many theories. One is that the shrieks are from the ghost of a woman who is seeking her baby. There was another similar death some time earlier, also a young man and recorded as heart failure but he was found near a shrieking pit in the centre of a fairy ring. Then the maid at the vicarage becomes hysterical, claiming that her baby has disappeared, though the vicar’s wife declares that there is no baby. All indications seem to point to a house called Wayside Cross.
The Bullstrode sisters who live at Wayside Cross, are regarded with suspicion. They are never seen in church and there are rumours that they are witches. Arabella, the eldest does have a knowledge of plants and is willing to treat women for minor, feminine ailments. The house has been frequented by both Manning and Ott as her father accumulated an esoteric library which can be consulted, though the books are not available to borrow. It is up to Jesperson on Lane to piece together the pieces of the puzzle and unravel the mysteries. None of it is as straightforward as it appears at first.
The fantasy elements in this volume are slight, and only impinge a small part of the mysteries but the whole book is delightful to read. Tuttle handles the nuances of the Victorian environment with skilful impeccability.