Saffron Cutler and her boyfriend, Tom, have just moved into a cottage that once belonged to her grandmother, Rose. With the couple expecting their first child, Tom is busy renovating the house. The plan includes expanding the kitchen, but as workers set about digging up the back garden, they discover two skeletons. Suddenly, Saffy’s quiet life is upended when police tape surrounds their property and the media becomes a constant presence. Who are the man and woman buried in the garden and did Saffy’s grandmother, now suffering from dementia, have anything to do with their deaths?
Saffy’s mother, Lorna, lives in Spain and, after learning the news, returns to Beggars Nook, a quaint village in the Cotswolds where the cottage is located. Together, they visit Rose in the care home, hoping she will remember something – anything – that will help to identify the bodies. Lorna was a wild child, getting pregnant and giving birth to Saffy when she was only 16. She was never close to her mother, but Saffy and Rose are more alike and have a strong bond. In Rose’s infrequent lucid moments, she responds to Saffy’s questions with statements that raise alarm bells. “Is it Sheila? Such a wicked little girl,” Rose blurts out. Then on another occasion, “Jean hit her over the head and she fell to the ground.” And then this: “Victor was trying to hurt us.”
Meanwhile, in Harrogate, Theo Carmichael makes his regular obligatory visit to his father a prominent physician who is now retired. Theo’s mother died when she was only 45, leaving behind her young son to be raised by a controlling, narcissistic father. While the death was ruled accidental – Theo’s mother was found at the bottom of a staircase in their home – Theo has always wondered whether his father killed his mother. But without any evidence he does what he believes his mother would want, to stay in touch with his father, even though he’s secretive and never welcomes his son. On one occasion, Theo sees on his father’s desk the newspaper article about the bodies in Saffy’s backyard. The name “Rose Grey” is underlined with the words: “Find her!” What could his father’s connection be to those two bodies?
Although the police, headed by DS Matthew Barnes, are laser-focused on solving the case, Saffy and Lorna conduct their own investigation, enlisting Saffy’s father, Euan, who writes for a London newspaper to dig up background information on the names that keep turning up. One article reports on a Sheila Watts who went missing and was believed to have drowned after a New Year’s Eve party in Broadstairs. Did she really die or fake her death, only to end up in Saffy’s backyard?
Claire Douglas (Photo by Lou Abercrombie)
The narrative bounces between Saffy, Lorna, and Theo focused on present time, and Rose, who writes in 1979 and 1980, recounting events in the cottage that may have resulted in the deaths of two people. Rose is hiding from someone in her past. Although she loves the village, she keeps to herself and is over protective of Lorna. But when a young woman moves to Beggars Nook, they are drawn together. Daphne Hartall also is trying to bury her past and while she and Rose grow close, neither shares past histories. When the truth finally comes out, the results are devastating.
Mother-daughter and father-son relationships frame the narrative. Saffy and Lorna have never been close, neither have Lorna and Rose. Theo maintains a relationship with his father out of family obligations, not out of love. When those bonds are tested beyond belief will they hold? In the end, nothing will remain the same for those whose lives somehow became entangled with two bodies in a garden.
Claire Douglas brings Beggars Nook alive, the people, the shops, the celebrations, the food. But what begins as a bucolic village, where so many of us would love to visit, soon turns into something out of a horror film. Both Saffy and Lorna are threatened by someone seeking information from Rose. And when the cottage is broken into and nothing stolen, Saffy wonders what secrets are hidden within the walls. What finally breaks open part of the case is a long forgotten promise made to the village gossip.
The Couple at Number Nine
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