The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross (from the casebook of Jesperson & Lane)- Lisa Tuttle
Hydra/ Random House
Release Date: November 28, 2017
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Synopsis: “Witch!” cries the young man after stumbling unexpectedly into the London address of the consulting-detective partnership of Mr. Jasper Jesperson and Miss Lane. He makes the startling accusation while pointing toward Miss Lane . . . then he drops dead. Thus begins the strangest case yet to land—quite literally—on the doorstep of Jesperson and Lane.
According to the coroner, Charles Manning died of a heart attack—despite being in perfect health. Could he have been struck down by a witch’s spell? The late Mr. Manning’s address book leads Jesperson and Lane to the shrieking pits of Aylmerton, an ancient archaeological site reputed to be haunted by a vengeful ghost. There they sift through the local characters, each more suspicious than the last: Manning’s associate, Felix Ott, an English folklore enthusiast; Reverend Ringer, a fierce opponent of superstition; and the Bulstrode sisters, a trio of beauties with a reputation for witchcraft.
But when an innocent child goes missing, suddenly Jesperson and Lane aren’t merely trying to solve one murder—they’re racing to prevent another.
When a man falls dead at their front door, private detectives Jesperson and Lane decide to discover why he died and what brought him to their door in the first place. The coroner says it was a heart attack but Charles Manning apparently had a great deal of interest in witches- could he have angered one into killing him? The detectives travel to the countryside of Aylmerton where superstition and folklore live side by side with more 'modern' thinking and religion, where Manning was rumored to be courting a young witch, and where people are highly suspicious of outsiders. Soon one questionable death turns into several and Jesperson and Lane have their hands full trying to prevent another.
Advertised as a paranormal Sherlock Holmes story, the Curious Affair promised to be full of mystery, magic, and brilliant detectives. I found it to contain very little of any of those. Throughout the book you find yourself wondering if the magic and paranormal advertised are actually believed in and real, like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or a mere ruse with a devious but perfectly scientific explanation, like Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. Even a confirmed fairy siting doesn't really answer the question as far as the rest of the characters go. Does Manning's friend Felix Ott genuinely believe in returning the Old Religions and gods to England or is it a way to trick money from others? Did he kill Manning over a business disagreement?
The mystery itself was never more than mildly interesting to me, which was surprising. You'd think a man dropping dead of unknown causes would lead to a pretty good whodunit. But so many other things began to get piled on to the plot that sometimes you forgot about Manning altogether. Yet none of the other mysteries- several other unexplained deaths and then the disappearance of an infant- really kept the plot moving for me either. The book mostly revolved around a series of unlikeable characters who went from country hospitality to chilly and insulted in an instant. Diana Bulstrode (the supposed witch of Wayside Cross) was the only character I found at all interesting and even she had a tendency to become annoying quickly. The main characters of Jasper Jesperson and Miss Lane never gained any depth or particular background to make them interesting, unique, or likable. Even Miss Lane, who gives a Watson-like first person account of the case, isn't much more than a cipher to tell the story. We get a brief and politely social background to her life before becoming a detective and more than halfway through the book are finally told her first name (although after finding out what it is you understand why she doesn't advertise it). But the reader gets no real backstory to them: no explanation of how Miss Lane met Jespserson, why they decided to become detectives, what their relationship is, or anything else about them. Maybe some of this was mentioned in Tuttle's first book (The Curious Affair of the Somnabulist and the Psychic Thief) but I haven't read that book. Nor, after the Witch of Wayside Cross, do I really care to. While things get interesting at the very end, by the time everything is revealed I was left with the feeling that all the murder victims got what they deserved and only vaguely sympathetic of the lives ruined in the process.
Tuttle does a good job describing the English countryside, but neither the characters nor the mysteries stood out to me as a way to make the book enjoyable. Doyle enthusiasts and paranormal mystery lovers alike should probably skip this addition to the inspired-by-Sherlock shelves. Weak and unlikeable characters overshadow what could have been an interesting set of mysteries to leave a book that sounded better in the description than in the reading.
I received an ARC of this book from NetGallery in exchange for an honest review