Cathy Ace’s WISE women return to tackle another set of perplexing puzzles in The Case of the Cursed Cottage, the seventh book in the WISE Enquiries Agency cosy mystery series. The indomitable band of sleuths have previously tackled disappearing corpses, strange shenanigans in a bookshop, a sabotaged croquet tournament and much more besides, and they’ve always managed to best the criminals and ensure that justice is served. They’re private detectives with an enviable reputation for uncovering the worst of human nature, but how will they fare against long-dead witches?
Towards the end of January, the members of the WISE Enquiries Agency, now mostly contentedly settled in their new Welsh base, are approached by a prospective client who rather reluctantly tells them a truly peculiar tale. Gemma Thomas explains that she inherited Sea View Cottage, which dates from the 1700s, in the small village of Port Beynon on the Gower Peninsula, from her uncle following his death from carbon monoxide poisoning. She and her husband have renovated the cottage, turning the interior into a modern smart home with all the associated bells and whistles, with the intention of renting it out as a holiday let to only ‘nice’ people.
However, after one of their first guests, Brian Kelly, died when his electric bicycle unexpectedly sent him careening down a steep hillside, and after her husband narrowly avoided death by exploding coffeemaker a short while later, Gemma is convinced that the cottage is cursed and actively seeking to kill men who stay there. She even suspects that her uncle’s death may have been due to the malevolent residence. Rumours going round the village suggest that the cottage used to be home to a pair of witches, who were likely responsible for the curse, and Gemma wants the WISE detectives to investigate the cottage and, hopefully, find a way to break the curse.
Taking the idea of a murderous cottage in their stride, Christine Wilson-Smythe and Annie Parker agree to spend a week there. Meanwhile, Mavis MacDonald takes on a case for Mark Morgan, who is being sued for £100,000 by a bricklayer who alleges that Morgan caused him to fall from a ladder and suffer a serious sprain while he was building a wall in the Morgans’ garden. This involves her covertly observing the bricklayer for any signs that he might be swinging the lead as well as digging into his history for signs of prior dubious injuries.
For her part, Carol Hill ends up going undercover in the spa at the Ash Court Country House Hotel, where local harridan Marjorie Pritchard claims to have contracted a painful skin infection on her hands after undergoing a manicure. Before engaging a solicitor to sue the spa, Marjorie wants the agency to find proof of health and safety violations. And while the four WISE women are all busy with their cases, Henry Devereaux Twyst, 18th Duke of Chellingworth, is left to both solve the mysterious disappearance of some silver christening mugs and decide on the perfect name for his newborn son.
As The Case of the Cursed Cottage is the seventh book in the WISE Enquiries Agency series, there is plenty of backstory concerning the four sleuths, their relationship with Henry Twyst and his family, and the facts and impacts of their previous cases, which certainly crops up at various points throughout the story. Still, while it is definitely worth reading the previous books in the series, this seventh instalment can be read as a standalone novel. Cathy Ace provides just the right amount of detail and hints that new readers both understand the gist of what has gone before and feel intrigued to learn more.
This time round there are four strands of mystery to be solved, which range in terms of their severity and danger level but all require some canny detective skills to get to the bottom of things. The major case facing the WISE women is arguably Gemma Thomas’s potentially homicidal holiday home, a truly novel prospect when it comes to the killers that typically inhabit cosy crime fiction. It may sound strange, but it’s most assuredly no laughing matter – a number of serious injuries and deaths are linked to the property. Ace does a great job of conveying the sinister nature of the place while also describing the natural beauty of the village and wider surroundings.
The fact that Sea View Cottage is said to have previously been owned by the old Gorst sisters, who may have cursed its future residents, adds an extra layer to the puzzle and allows for Ace to ramp up the tension with the possibility of events having a supernatural basis. Of course, the WISE women certainly ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost and so crack on with their investigation regardless, speaking to a host of local characters and slowly unravelling the interesting history of the cottage. The past is certainly echoing in the present, but the truth behind the various incidents at the cottage very much lies in the gritty real world rather than the supernatural.
A potentially fraudulent personal injury claim and a possible breach of health and safety legislation are probably the bread and butter of any contemporary detective agency, but in The Case of the Cursed Cottage they have some additional dimensions that heighten the intrigue and have the potential to cause significant trouble for the sleuths. Moreover, Marjorie Pritchard’s role in the spa case allows Ace to include some social commentary on the insidiousness of racial microaggressions at the same time as highlighting how even outwardly awful people can have some positive attributes.
While The Case of the Cursed Cottage deals with some serious and weighty issues, Ace also manages to work a good deal of humour into the story, for example in the thread concerning Henry Twyst and his family strife, which also reflects the kind of country house mystery that characterises many a golden age crime novel. As ever, the different settings in Wales are exceedingly well drawn, with Ace bringing forth both the good and the bad of village life and shining a light on the tangled webs that people weave. It all makes for a complex set of interweaving puzzles that are enthusiastically and competently unpicked by the four WISE women (and Henry).
Four Tails Publishing
CFL Rating: 4 Stars