The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

The Key in the Lock is Beth Underdown’s second novel. Her first, The Witchfinder’s Sister, was a fascinating historical novel set during the Manningtree witch trials of 1645; this new book sounded very different, but I still wanted to give it a try.

The novel opens in 1918, with Ivy Boscawen trying to come to terms with the death of her son, Tim, shot dead in the trenches of the Western Front. Ivy is desperate to know exactly what happened to Tim, but after speaking to some of his fellow soldiers what she discovers about her son’s death makes her feel even more distressed. Worse still, the loss of Tim triggers memories of another boy, William Tremain, who died thirty years earlier in a fire at the Great House in Polneath, Cornwall. Ivy, whose father was the Polneath doctor at the time, has been haunted by William’s tragic death ever since and has never been able to shake off her feelings of guilt about her actions in the aftermath of the fire.

With Ivy as the narrator, the novel moves back and forth in time between 1918 and 1888, gradually shedding light on the mysteries surrounding both deaths. Family secrets are uncovered, wills are read, inquests are held, clandestine meetings take place and identities are revealed – yet this is not really the exciting, suspenseful Gothic novel I had been hoping for. It moves along at a very slow pace and although I was enjoying it enough to want to read on to the end, I never felt fully engaged with either the plot or the characters.

There is an advantage to the slow pace, however, which is that it gives the reader a chance to try to solve some of the mysteries and guess some of the secrets before Ivy does. It’s a complex story, with lots of pieces that only begin to fall into place towards the end and there were points where I felt confused, particularly as the two timelines often seem to merge together. A chapter heading may indicate that we are in 1918, but after a few paragraphs Ivy starts to remember the events of 1888 again and it’s not always clear which period we are reading about. Also, the ‘key in the lock’ of the title turns out to be several keys to several locks in several doors and I struggled to keep track of the significance of them all.

I did like the atmosphere Beth Underdown creates and the attention to period detail; I never felt that the language or attitudes were too modern. She also writes very convincingly about Ivy’s grief for her lost son, her sense of guilt over what happened at the Great House, and the terrible misunderstandings and assumptions that have persisted for thirty years. It’s a very sad story, where lives are taken too early, acts of kindness go unappreciated until it’s almost too late and wicked deeds go unpunished for too long. An interesting read, but with a tighter focus I think it could have been a much better book.

Thanks to Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read this book.

This is book 1/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

The Witchfinder’s Sister is Beth Underdown’s first novel. I was drawn to it first by the title and the cover, but the subject – the English witch trials of the 1640s – appealed to me too.

The title character is Alice Hopkins, a fictional sister of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General who was believed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of women in England over a period of several years in the middle of the 17th century. At the beginning of the novel, following the death of her husband in London, Alice is returning to Manningtree, Essex, where her brother still lives. The two have not been on good terms ever since Alice married the son of a servant, Bridget, whom Matthew blames for the childhood accident which has left his face scarred. Now, though, she hopes they can put the past behind them and move on.

Moving into her brother’s lodgings at the Thorn Inn, Alice is relieved to find that he is willing to let her stay with him – but she quickly discovers that the years have changed Matthew and that he is not the same man she left behind. She hears disturbing rumours about him in the town, linking him with accusations of witchcraft against local women, and when she discovers that he is making lists and collecting evidence, Alice must decide whether or not to intervene.

The novel gets off to a slow start as characters are introduced and background information is provided, with lots of flashbacks to earlier events in Alice’s and Matthew’s lives, but after a few chapters the pace begins to pick up. Not knowing much about the real Matthew Hopkins, I found Underdown’s portrayal of him very intriguing. The lack of known facts relating to his early days gives her the freedom to create a convincing backstory for him, and I appreciated the way she delves into his personal history, revealing family secrets and trying to show how incidents from his childhood may have helped to shape the man he will become. Only seeing him through Alice’s eyes – the novel is written in the first person – makes it difficult to penetrate below the surface and really understand him, but that just makes him all the more chilling and unnerving.

I thought Alice was a less interesting character, maybe because her main role as narrator is to tell the story of Matthew and the women accused of witchcraft rather than taking an active part in events herself. I found her slightly bland – although I did have some sympathy as she was forced to stand by and watch as her brother carried out his terrible deeds, not knowing what she could say or do to help his victims. It would have been nice to have had the opportunity to get to know some of the so-called witches in more depth; most of them were little more than names on the page, and I think if I had been able to care about their fates on an emotional level that would have added an extra layer to the novel. Having said that, I was fascinated by the descriptions of Hopkins’ methods of identifying witches, particularly the one referred to as ‘watching’ – I had heard about that before, but hadn’t fully appreciated the discomfort and torment involved in it.

The book ends in a way that is slightly difficult to believe, but I liked it and thought it added a good twist! Based on this novel, I think Beth Underdown can look forward to a successful writing career; there were things that I liked about it and others that I didn’t like as much, but on the whole I enjoyed it and would certainly be interested in reading more by this author.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.