Bellebrook's Secrets by Helen Stafford

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Bellebrook's Secrets by Helen Stafford

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Crime and upheaval comes to the good – and not so good – folk of Bellebrook and creates a charming, comfort read in the process. Add another 100 pages and it would be even better.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Matador
ISBN: 978-1783063321

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Trudy Hampstead has a plan that will support her widowed mother and twin brother unwittingly involving their landlord's son. Their landlord is local gentry and philanderer Alistair Burgoyne QC and the one person who can ensure security of tenure. Lizzie thinks that Peter the local curate should step in to speak to Trudy, something he's more than happy to do since he has a secret agenda of his own. Meanwhile up at the farm the Lovestocks' marriage is coming apart at the seams, a fact that may partially threaten the peace of the village but not half as much as the anonymous random acts of violence that are about to hit Bellebrook.

British writer Helen Stafford started this, her first adult novel, years ago on a creative writing course. The good folk of Bellebrook eventually saw the light of a published day in 2014, providing us with a slice of eventful village life and a comfort read. A comfort read? Yes – you know the sort of book you reach for when the family are out and there's a warm fire/radiator (delete as applicable!) and pot of tea beside you? If you do and you're a fan of the genre, this is one to add to your list.

It's not without a couple of minor glitches but, unusually these seem to arise from the book being too short rather than too long. When an author has a panoramic tale to tell rather than a short story and there are less than 200 pages at their disposal, characters have got to be introduced swiftly with as much detail in a short a time as possible. The lack of volume also means that the ending has to be resolved just as speedily. These are the only two whinges though and they're extremely minor as the expanse between them is sublime.

Bellebrook is populated by some wonderfully memorable people and, like any English village, there are undercurrents, secrets and wardrobes full of metaphorical skeletons. These are folk who are rounded with reasons for their faults and foibles, reminding us they're human. In fact this is a morality tale, in a good way as each person is fashioned and formed by their own experiences before our very eyes. We therefore sympathise with them all… well… apart from one but I won't say who!

The two major pivots of the story are Trudy and the lord of the manor (at least in his own mind), Alistair Burgoyne QC. Alistair believes very firmly in noblesse oblige and is rather pleased that his son Christian is a chip off the old block. Unfortunately Christian is oblige-ing Trudy, a lass with a plan that, on the surface seems spiteful. However her motives are pure, even if her actions aren't. Does this therefore make a difference? Helen leaves the judgement to us.

Life isn't all gossip and getting legs up and legs (tastefully) over though; there's violence afoot. Indeed Helen knows how to cast uncertainty upon her previously slightly choppy waters. We're teased with a few suspects until once again the brevity of the book puts us out of our misery fairly fast. However it's at that delicious moment of discovery that we realise the complications the perpetrator initiates.

The story's charm and mayhem puts this novel at the Miss Marple end of the suspense scale rather than the Jeffery Deaver and therefore the perfect antidote to the heavy reading we've just emerged from with the Man Booker list. The further good news is that Helen is currently working on a sequel so I'm looking forward to revisiting the village and, hopefully this time for a longer stay. I mean, if Helen can pack so much into 200 pages, I'd love to see what she can do with 300.

(Thank you to the author for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you enjoy a Miss-Marple-end of the spectrum mystery, we recommend The Legacy by Kirsten Tranter or End in Tears by Ruth Rendell.

You can read more about Helen Stafford here.

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