Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

Until recently I had only known Martin Edwards as the editor of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, but he has also written a large number of crime novels of his own. This one, Mortmain Hall, is the second in a new series set in the 1930s and featuring Rachel Savernake, an amateur detective and daughter of a notorious judge. I hadn’t read the first book, Gallows Court, but I hoped that wouldn’t matter too much.

Beginning with an epilogue (not a prologue), and then a first chapter with the opening line “The ghost climbed out of a hackney carriage”, the novel was off to an intriguing start. As Rachel follows the ‘ghost’ into a station and onboard a train, a story begins to unfold of an author – Gilbert Payne – who faked his own death and escaped to Tangiers.

Just as I was becoming interested in Gilbert’s story, however, we leave him behind and join journalist Jacob Flint, who is in court watching a trial – a case of a possible miscarriage of justice. Also watching in court that day is Leonora Dobell, Britain’s leading criminologist who has an obsession with murder to equal Rachel’s own. Mrs Dobell has a particular interest in injustices, last minute acquittals and people who have narrowly escaped hanging. Descriptions of some of these trials follow, but we won’t find out how they are connected until the second half of the book, where Mrs Dobell invites a group of guests – including Rachel – to a house party at Mortmain Hall, her remote Gothic estate on the North Yorkshire court. But before the truth is revealed, another murder will take place…

Mortmain Hall is a fascinating murder mystery, but I do think it was a mistake to read it without having read Gallows Court first; I felt as though there must have been a lot of backstory for Rachel and the other characters that I didn’t understand. Add this to the number of different storylines introduced in the first few chapters of the book and the descriptions of various criminal trials, each with their own set of murderers, victims and witnesses, and I quickly found myself becoming confused. Eventually, though, all the threads of the novel began to come together and I could appreciate the cleverness and complexity of the plot.

The book ends with a ‘Cluefinder’ (a tradition in Golden Age detective novels), in which all of the clues that appeared throughout the story are listed and explained. I have to confess, I missed most of them, but I’m sure other readers will have been much more observant than I was!

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

13 thoughts on “Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

  1. Christine says:

    I read Gallows Court a couple of years ago, and it does have quite a bit of backstory on both Rachel and Jacob. I liked it pretty well.

    I am a huge fan of Martin Edwards, mostly for his work with the British Library crime classics series, as well as his 2 non-fiction books. He has done so much to create the market for the mystery reissues that I love!

    • Helen says:

      I definitely think I should have read Gallows Court first, as I found this one quite difficult to follow at the beginning. And yes, Martin Edwards is doing a great job with the BLCC books!

  2. Lark says:

    Fun that there’s a cluefinder at the end of the book. I’m never good at finding all the clues in these mysteries either. 😀

  3. Café Society says:

    Amazon had The Coffin Trail, the first of a series set in the Lake District and featuring among others a bookshop owner, on offer recently. It might be worth seeing if that is still the case.

  4. Jo says:

    I tried this book, but just couldn’t get on with it. I felt I was missing something and in the end, gave up. I think perhaps if I get hold of a copy of the first book and give that a go I may well come back to it.

    • Helen says:

      It took me a while to get into the book too, though I’m glad I kept going. I think it would definitely have made things easier if I’d started with the first book instead.

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