Zaffre | 2017 (20 April) | 342p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is Christmas Day in 1795 and this is one of the coldest winters that people can remember. But the villagers of St Mary in the Marsh in Kent will have more reason than most to remember this particular Christmas – a body is discovered, frozen into the ice of a horse pond belonging to New Hall, the deserted grand house on the edge of the village. It’s not, though, as deserted as it should have been. Two men were spotted arriving there a couple of days before but both have now vanished. Reverend Hardcastle, justice of the peace as well as rector, doesn’t delay in pursuing these men but it’s not long before he realises that there is more to the murder mystery than first appeared. And matters are compounded when New Hall’s owners arrive to reclaim their ancestral home, years after abandoning it for new lives in America.
This is a time of unease. Peace has finally been achieved with America after the Revolution and independence but Britain is at war with France and this vulnerable Kent coast feels the threat more than most. And so Hardcastle and his friend and neighbour Amelia Chaytor will receive little help from the preoccupied authorities for their investigations, especially after an obvious suspect makes himself known. But, as the winter continues to hold its grip, Hardcastle is convinced that all is not as it seems.
The Body in the Ice is the second Hardcastle and Chaytor historical mystery by A.J. MacKenzie but, I’m sorry to say, it’s my first. There are links to the first novel The Body on the Doorstep but that didn’t affect my enjoyment or understanding of The Body in the Ice at all. The story stands alone very well and I was gripped from its opening icey chapter, immediately falling for Amelia and the rector (and the dog, even the rector’s sister). But, if you do want to read The Body on the Doorstep, make sure you read that first.
I love historical murder mysteries, especially those that evoke strong feeling for the times in which they’re set, and The Body In the Ice does just that with the American Wars of Independence and the war with France playing their part. I hadn’t thought before about the impact of the American revolution on families in Britain, many of whom would have been divided, but this novel brings that to the fore. But there are other big themes here, such as the treatment of black men and women on both sides of the Atlantic during these days of slavery.
But apart from all the tension and drama of the murder mystery (which is excellent), there is humour, mostly at the expense of the rector’s poor sister, Cordelia. She is a gothic novelist (currently engaged in writing The Lighthouse of Vavassal) and not above providing generous writing advice to the sister of a new arrival in the village, Captain Edward Austen from Hampshire. But Cordelia complements Amelia perfectly and I enjoyed them both.
The Body in the Ice evokes a world of Georgian country villages that revolve around their church and manor house, with a dash of smuggling thrown in as this is the Kentish coast. It is richly atmospheric and wonderfully written, with just the right proportions of domestic and national politics, murder and polite conversation. The ending put me on the edge of my seat – there comes a time when manners have to be put to one side. I will most definitely be following this series from now on. I’m looking forward to The Body in the Boat very much.