Christmas is approaching but there is little good cheer in the bitterly cold air in Haworth, Yorkshire, in December 1845. The literary geniuses turned sleuths Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë are about to investigate their second sinister case and it has a grim gothic chill to it.
The sisters with their hedonistic brother Branwell in tow put on their sleuthing bonnets and traipse across the snow-covered moors when they hear that the bones of a malnourished child have been found interred in the chimney breast of a locked room at Top Withens Hall – the isolated farm that partly inspired Emily’s future novel Wuthering Heights.
There they find ranting brutish farmer Clifton Bradshaw, who has gone mad with grief since the death of his wife 13 years earlier, who died in the room where the bones were found. His frightened son Liston is a friend of Branwell’s and in the hall an elderly servant suffering from dementia is babbling about the monster responsible.
The Haworth parson’s daughters are determined that the bones should receive a Christian burial, despite the farmer’s refusal to hand them over. He appears terrified of someone, behind his aggressive behaviour. The sister’s cook-housekeeper, Tabby Aykroyd, is convinced pure evil is behind the discovery as a medallion bearing a symbol is found with the bones. She believes Bradshaw has sold his soul to the devil.
Old magic, old superstitions and the old ways hang around the mystery like freezing fog that won’t shift. Before long, amid warnings from Tabby that ill-fortune will spread across the land if the bones of the poor child remain hard done by, the sisters are protecting the parsonage from evil spirits with plants and consulting a witch. In the churchyard in Haworth the pragmatic Emily sees the apparition of a veiled woman.
Despite the burial of the bones and the efforts of the sisters to solve the mystery through fighting evil, another child goes missing and the siblings ramp up their detecting on a more practical level, as they fear a murderer is at large. Their leads take them to a brutal poor school where children are starved and beaten and terrified of a monster who stole a child. Charlotte receives unexpected help and friendship from a rich lady landowner and the sisters visit the then real life Ponden Hall library for clues.
The sisters are yet to write their famous novels, but there is plenty of foreshadowing for the fictional inspirations for Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. They are waiting to hear whether their poems have been accepted by an editor for publication.
Like Bella Ellis’s first Brontë mystery, The Vanished Bride, you are required to suspend your disbelief that Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë become ‘lady detectors‘ in pursuit of the truth in 1845 Yorkshire.
If, like the author, you are a Brontë fan with a love of the gothic then The Diabolical Bones will thrill you. If you admire the Brontë’s works but prefer your mysteries to be more realistic, you may be overwhelmed at times by the melodrama and descriptions of pagan practices to banish evil.
These concerns are redeemed for the latter group of readers, as it turns out that the sisters are pursuing someone completely deranged and wicked, who has been using the folklore and superstition to manipulate the sisters and prey on the locals.
Like the Victorian novelists, the book reveals the social horrors of the day, from desperate child poverty to prejudice against Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine. The squabbles of the siblings are charming and witty and lift the mood. Their characters are well drawn with bossy Charlotte, logical and fearless Emily and intuitive and insightful Anne. They make a splendid team of sleuths.
It’s rollicking gothic fun and it is worth putting on your stout shoes and bonnet for an imaginative adventure across the midwinter moors. There will be more to come in the mystery series, written by author Rowan Coleman using her pseudonym inspired by Emily Brontë’s pen name Ellis Bell.
Check out our guide to ten books featuring writers as sleuths. There’s more murder in 1840s Yorkshire in The Zealot’s Bones by DM Mark.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars