Lucinda Riley is best known for her Seven Sisters series and her other standalone dual time period novels, so The Murders at Fleat House – a contemporary crime novel – is something very different. It would have made an excellent start to a new series, but sadly that’s not to be as Lucinda passed away in 2021, leaving this book as the only example of her crime writing. It’s one of several novels she wrote early in her career, without a publisher, and it was finally published posthumously in 2022.
The novel begins with the sudden death of Charlie Cavendish, a student at St Stephen’s, a private boarding school in rural Norfolk. The cause of death is found to be aspirin, to which Charlie was allergic – a fact known to everyone else who boarded with him in Fleat House. The school headmaster, concerned about the reputation of St Stephen’s, is keen to have the incident declared a tragic accident, but the police suspect there’s more to it than that. It seems that someone switched the medication Charlie took to control his epilepsy with aspirin – but who did it and why?
Detective Inspector Jazmine ‘Jazz’ Hunter happens to be in Norfolk at the time of the death, having attempted to walk away from her police career in London for personal reasons, but she is persuaded to return to work and lead the investigation. As she begins to look into the circumstances surrounding Charlie’s death, events take an unexpected turn with the discovery of a second dead body and the disappearance of another of the Fleat House boys. The clues all seem to point towards one culprit, but Jazz is not convinced. Can she solve the mystery before the wrong person is found guilty?
Schools often make interesting settings for murder mysteries and this is no exception. However, we only get to know one or two of the children; it’s the adults – the detectives, the teachers, the staff and the parents – who are at the forefront of the story here. Jazz herself is an engaging protagonist and could have been the star of a whole series, if the author had lived to write more books. A lot of time is spent on personal storylines – a difficult relationship with her Irish ex-husband, a father ill in hospital – which sometimes detracts from the central mystery, but would be understandable if Riley was trying to round out Jazz’s character with future books in mind.
I really enjoyed The Murders at Fleat House – the worst I can say about it is that it was a bit too long and could have used some editing. Having said that, Harry Whittaker (Lucinda Riley’s son) explains in his foreword to the book why he made the decision to leave his mother’s work in its original form and largely unedited. Otherwise, I found this a very entertaining and compelling murder mystery, with a classic feel; rather than lots of blood and gore, which you often get in modern crime novels, the focus is on looking for clues, interviewing suspects and trying to unravel family secrets and complex relationships. The ending came as a surprise – I certainly hadn’t guessed the identity of the murderer or their motive!
Although I’m sorry that we won’t have a chance to meet Jazz Hunter again, I’m now looking forward to the final Seven Sisters book, Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt, which has been completed by Harry Whittaker and will be published in May. Only another month to wait!