Minette Walters is one of my favourite authors of all time, but this is very far from being my favourite of her books. It begins wonderfully, with a dark death promising intriguing mystery and much nastiness, but by the end has developed into something very close to farce. The denouement is unsatisfactory; without giving the entire thing away, the murder never feels fully explained.
An eccentric and widely disliked old woman, Martha Gillespie, is found dead in her bath, wrists slashed, apparently a suicide. But she has been crowned with a scold's bridle, a medieval punishment for women who talked too much, decorated with nettles and daisies, which she could not have put on herself.
Sarah Blakeney, Mrs Gillespie's doctor, seems to be the only person who actually liked her, and is the only person initially willing to pursue the suicide theory. Sarah, though, has problems of her own: her womanizing husband seems about to embark on an affair with Mrs Gillespie's mercenary daughter, and perhaps had an affair with Martha herself. Dr. Blakeney and the investigating police (who, I am afraid to say, have merged into one navy blue lump in my memory) must uncover some very nasty secrets in Martha's past before they can explain the murder. Unfortunately, these nasty secrets turn out to be the very standard set of English murder mystery secrets: incest, missing children, secret diaries and so forth, which was all annoyingly formulaic.
There is no doubt that this book has a lot of plot, and a much larger cast than many of Walters' other books. Perhaps this is the problem; it feels cluttered and unresolved, twist upon twist upon twist, until the final ending, which promotes a previously minor character to major importance (this is one of my big bugbears with thriller plots) and feels small and silly compared to the grand passion which has preceded it.