But there are dark secrets buried deep inside historic St Stephen’s School and as Jazz digs deeper into both the past and the present, she confronts not just a baffling mystery but the full force of her own demons.
Following last year’s untimely death from cancer of international bestselling author Lucinda Riley – the remarkable author behind the sensational, time-slip Seven Sisters series which is being planned as a seven-season TV series – her family are continuing to fulfil her vast literary legacy.
The eighth, and final, book of the Seven Sisters sequence will be completed by Riley’s eldest son, Harry Whittaker, and published in spring next year, but first there is the excitement of a new and previously unpublished novel… the author’s only crime mystery.
Written back in 2006, The Murders at Fleat House is a twisting, turning, suspense-packed story which displays in fine form Riley’s expert grasp of both plot and characterisation, and has been published with only the bare minimum of final edits and rewrites to allow her voice to speak loudly and authentically from the text.
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The sudden death of sixth former, Charlie Cavendish, in Fleat House at St Stephen’s – a small, 150-year-old private boarding school in deepest Norfolk – is the ultimate nightmare event that the headmaster, Robert Jones, is very keen to call a tragic accident.
But the local police cannot rule out foul play… epileptic Charlie’s two evening tablets had been deliberately substituted with two aspirin, a drug to which the 18-year-old had a severe allergy and which caused his sudden death when he was alone in his study room.
An investigation is ordered and the case prompts the return of 34-year-old DI Jazz Hunter to the force. Jazz has her own personal reasons – not least her divorce after her ambitious policeman husband’s adultery – for stepping away from her police career in London but reluctantly agrees to front the investigation as a favour to her old boss.
Reunited with her loyal sergeant DS Alistair Miles, she enters the closed world of the school, and as Jazz begins to probe the circumstances surrounding Charlie’s death, events are soon to take another troubling turn. Charlie is exposed as an arrogant bully and wheeler-dealer who had been trouble from the moment he entered the school and threatened with expulsion.
And Jazz soon discovers that he had many enemies close around him, people who had both motive and opportunity to switch the drugs that he had to take every day.
As staff at the school close ranks, the disappearance of young pupil Rory Millar and the death of elderly classics master Hugh Daneman provide Jazz with important leads, but are destined to complicate the investigation further.
When snow starts to cover the landscape and another suspect goes missing, Jazz must also confront her personal problems. And in another twist to the police probe, a particularly grim discovery at the school makes this the most challenging murder investigation of her career because Fleat House hides secrets darker than even Jazz could ever have imagined.
Riley’s early career as an actress in film, theatre and television endowed her with an eye for drama and dialogue, and this compelling story, set against the enticing backdrop of a prestigious boarding school inspired by her own children’s alma mater, delivers both in engrossing spadefuls.
A far cry from the blood-soaked, carved-up-bodies style of crime mystery, The Murders at Fleat House is a clever, carefully created police procedural in the classic tradition… big on genuine clues and subtle misdirection, a long list of fascinating suspects, and peopled by the exquisitely real and fleshed-out characters that we have come to expect from Riley’s imagination.
Threading between the lead players and events that have shaped the murder, the past bleeds into the present, murky secrets raise their ugly heads, old jealousies resurface, and revenge becomes the driving force.
At the centre of the investigation is the capable and charismatic Jazz, an artist who has found an outlet for her creativity in the fine art of adrenalin-fuelled detective work. Still reeling and raw from her husband’s infidelity and the end of her marriage, she is an intriguing character whose life was likely to have been a work in progress for Riley’s future mysteries.
With some gritty topics tackled, a sprinkling of romance, and the seductive landscape of Norfolk’s big skies, vast vistas, flat marshlands and coastal beauty forming a stunning backdrop, this is a thrilling whodunit for crime fans, and another Lucinda Riley legacy to treasure.
(Macmillan, hardback, £20)