When elderly Ailsa Lockyer-Fox is found dead in her garden, dressed only in nightclothes and with bloodstains on the ground near her body, the finger of suspicion points at her wealthy husband, Colonel James Lockyer-Fox. A coroner's investigation deems it death by natural causes, but the gossip surrounding James refuses to go away.
Ailsa Lockyer Fox is found dead in her garden, in her nightdress, apparently frozen to death mere steps from her own patio doors. Local rumour condemns her husband, James, as a cruel murderer, despite the conclusion by the coroner that it was accidental. His own children seem ready to accuse him and he is equally ready to suspect them. Oddly, and increasingly worryingly his lawyer, James is doing nothing to rebut the rumours. Could he be hiding a secret?
Meanwhile, a group of travellers led by a man calling himself Fox Evil descend upon James’ village in Shenstead, Dorset. They claim to want a place to settle down, but seem to know rather more about the village than one would expect.
Rousing himself from his stupor, James sends a letter via his lawyer, Mark, to his illegitimate granddaughter, Nancy. Gradually, she is drawn into a complex mesh of rumour, reality and danger surrounding the central mystery of the book: who locked Ailsa outside and left her to die?
As always, Walters creates a complex environment and there are a variety of characters to meet before the story can begin to develop. This naturally enforces a slow pace into what is already a fairly ‘cold’ crime – there is no dramatic discovery of a body or intense police investigation of the death. The event is revealed to us in a brief newspaper article and has already been dismissed by the police as an unusual accident. This is typical of Walters’ writing in that the reader is drawn in through the skilful creation of well-rounded characters and a slight mystery rather than by an intense desire to solve a who or how-dunnit. It does mean that readers need to be patient and give the story a chance to develop. This isn’t a high octane crime thriller but is more of a dark exploration of real motives and domestic lives. However, there are still subtle interests and fears that nag you into reading on.
In the first chapters a lot of characters are introduced quickly and the reader gains a gradual picture of them as the story develops. It is clear early on that Fox is indeed evil and the reader quickly comes to fear for young Wolfie, who sees Fox as his father, and a very dangerous one at that. Wolfie’s vulnerability made him a very sympathetic character and I found myself wanting to find out what would happen to him. In some respects, he is more of a ‘draw’ than James, whose self seclusion and refusal to rebut rumours initially clock his own vulnerability. Indeed, he seems to be the most logical suspect. When Fox appears in the story for a second time, Wolfie’s mother has vanished. This is terrifying for Wolfie and preys on the reader’s mind throughout the rest of the story. Unlikely as it was, I hoped for a happy ending for her.
I found other characters equally appealing. Nancy is a soldier who refuses to fit the ‘helpless female’ role so often meted out to women in crime fiction. Her interactions with the lawyer, Mark, are convincing and entertaining. She is intelligent and perceptive and I found myself liking her. Similarly, the local police officers are insightful and make connections effectively between events and people, leading to some interesting twists towards the end. I liked this as I think there is a tendency in novels that don’t feature a particular police man / force / similar legal force to depict the police as rather hopeless and inadequate. Although Walters depicts homes as vulnerable and communities peopled by rather dangerous folk, it is reassuring to know that the police are doing a good job!
Walters continues to shift the focus of the third person throughout to present a variety of characters and events. Gradually, the likely conclusion coalesces and the inevitable climax arrives with some bloodshed. Ultimately I felt that the ending was rather disappointing. I felt the perpetrator’s motives to be insufficient to justify their actions and that the whole ‘building’ of the plot was therefore rather shaky. That said, I appreciated the thoroughness of the concluding chapters. Walters used a newspaper report to fill in relevant background information and there is also a highly entertaining solictor’s letter. Finally, there is a kind of epilogue which helps to suggest how the characters will move on from the central events. I do like stories which are neatly ‘tied up’ at the end. One ‘loose thread’ is deliberately left and it isn’t as simple as happy endings all round which helped make the ending seem realistic.
The focus throughout is on people, feelings and motives which I found interesting. Fans of police procedurals or crime thrillers should look elsewhere. The novel feels ‘slow’ throughout but is quietly compelling. The writing is solid and convincing; there are no jerky cliff-hangers or clunky clichés. There are a variety of interesting and rounded characters although the focus is predominantly on middle class characters who consider themselves to be upper-middle. Some of the most entertaining dialogue takes place between the most snobbish characters whose flaws are mercilessly exposed by Walters. This feels like a very domestic drama and the supposedly central murder becomes almost tangential by the end. Despite the ‘tidiness’ of the ending, it is a bit disappointing: the villain seems to lack sufficient motivation and there is a lot of unpicking of plotlines to do which seem to result in a lot of writing but not much happening. I don’t feel that this is as engaging as Walters’ earlier novels and I think I shall reread those before looking to read any of her more recent work. However, that said, this is a very well written story of domestic disharmony and the potentially poisonous nature of gossipy village life. Recommended.
But in the end, there was another villain behind the menacing figure of Fox Evil – the husband of one of the women who made the anonymous, accusatory calls. He was running a drug and theft ring with Fox Evil. They met, purely by coincidence, and the husband was struck w/how much he looked like James’s estranged son that he thought he could fool the old housekeeper and score big.
At the root of this mystery is the question of who killed Ailsa Lockyer-Fox. Set in the small village of Shenstead in Dorset, Fox Evil attempts to sort it all out. Ailsa was found by her husband James outside their home in the freezing cold weather, wearing only a nightgown. Obviously, she hadn't intended on staying outside for any length of time. To add to the mystery, bloodstains were also found, but Ailsa had no visible wounds which would have caused them. To further whet the reader's appetite for clues, the door going back into the house was locked, and her husband James, seemingly slept on while the murder and mayhem were occurring. The coroner's report cleared James of any wrongdoing. So who killed Ailsa?
Fox Evil is rather cluttered, suffering from too much going on all at the same time. First, James gets his solicitor to track down his long-lost and grown-up granddaughter, Lizzie's daughter from a fling she had some time back, having been adopted when she was a baby. Then there's a matter of a vicious campaign of anonymous callers, accusing James of horrible things. Not to mention the band of travellers who decide to make a certain stretch of woodland their home and their leader, who goes by the name of Fox. Add into that a mix of neighbors with their own petty problems, and pretty soon you need a scorecard to keep track of it all.
My preference in mystery novels is for a book in which there are enough suspects who all have really good motives to kill someone, a few really good red herrings that might lead me down the wrong path, and a wowser of a revelation at the end. And although I generally like Minette Walters' writing (The Ice House, The Scold's Bridle and The Breaker were absolute gems), there was just way too much happening here. Of course, this book got many 5-star reviews, so it might just be me. I'd recommend it to people who have already read books by this author, but it's definitely not one of my personal favorites.