By Ian Beck
Published by The Bodley Head
ISBN 978 0370 332109
Charity Delafield is lonely. She's almost 13, yet knows nothing about what goes on in the world outside the walls of the vast mansion where she lives with her father. She's even banned from exploring her home, with her strict, over-protective parent ordering the servants never to let her go into the mansion's west wing. All the pampered prisoner has for company is Mr Tompkins, her faithful black cat.
Delafield controls his daughter completely. He has told her that she suffers from a serious medical condition and so must not mix with anyone other than the three loyal servants who keep the Delafield mansion running smoothly. Charity often wonders what her "condition" is, because she feels perfectly well.
Charity is haunted by a strange dream about a long corridor, and messages that she does not understand. The first few chapters set up a mystery that we know is going to be the core of the story. Things start to simmer when Charity meets a mysterious old woman at the gate leading out of the mansion. The old woman tells Charity that she has not been told the truth about her background. What is her father keeping from her? Charity decides to find out.
The action in the novel takes place wholly within the mansion and its grounds. By closing in the setting like this, Ian Beck builds up an unsettling Gothic atmosphere packed with suspense. What is more mysterious than a vast spooky house with secrets? There is just a small group of characters in the story and this again contributes much to the tightness of the book.
The story takes off at a gallop one cold snowy day when Charity is playing hide and seek with one of the servants. She somehow finds herself in the very same dark passage that has haunted her sleep for years. There is a locked door at the end of this spooky corridor. What's behind it? Charity makes up her mind to find out, despite the likelihood that danger lies beyond.
The book's setting is perfect for the story Beck is telling. A huge Victorian mansion set in a cold, snowy landscape with a dense forest nearby is not just a backdrop for the plot, it is a character in itself. Houses like Stone Green Hall always have secrets, dim corridors and abandoned rooms, and Charity is not the first fictional character who finds herself digging away at enigmas hidden away in the past.
This is an elegant mystery aimed at a young teen readership. Beck designed the cover of the novel himself, and for this is one of those rare times when you can judge a book by its cover. At first glance, the young girl trudging through the snow is innocent enough - but you just know somebody is watching her.
What exactly is haunting Charity? It's going to be edge-of-the- chair, do-not-disturb time as you join the determined Miss Delafield, and delve into secrets stashed away in her family's dark and intriguing past.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com