Minette Walters

The Last Hours – Minette Walters

Title – The Last Hours

Author – Minette Walters

Published – 2017

Genre – Historical Fiction

I’m a huge Minette Walters fan so The Last Hours was a book I didn’t want to miss out on reading. A departure from her crime novels this is historical fiction where the bulk of the bodycount comes from the Black Death rather than murder (note I said bulk…).

Set in 1348 the book opens as the Black Death is starting its horrific journey across the country. The main location is Develish, an estate in Dorset where the absence of the Lord of the manor forces his wife, the young Lady Anne, to take control in order to protect the serfs who live on their land.

Lady Anne is a progressive woman for her time, having introduced changes (despite her boorish husband) which have seen the health and productivity of their lands improve. She quickly understands the necessity for isolation and brings all two hundred serfs within the moated walls of the estate. This sets up a situation where tempers are sure to fray and conflicts arise.

The death of a young man leads to a small expedition beyond the confines of the estate and this adds more tension to the story. The parts of the book where the action takes place outside the walls are graphic in their depiction of the Black Death and don’t pull any punches. It’s also one of those situations where the reader knows more than the protagonists about their plight (unless you’ve never heard of the Black Death…).

I’ve seen reviews of the book that describe it as being on a broad canvas but I’m not sure I agree. The isolation of the inhabitants from the rest of the outside world, other than a few dramatic encounters, gives the book a claustrophobic atmosphere and although there are several main characters (Lady Anne, her spoilt brat of a daughter Eleanor, Thaddeus Thurkell, a man pilloried for being a bastard) the core story is very much ‘the Black Death came to our door, this is what we did’ rather than deal with the developments beyond the estate.

I think the book has quite a slow pace but I enjoyed the description of the more day-to-day events and the development of the main characters that this allowed. Some of the characters were better developed than others – the priest, for example, felt like quite a caricature, but the demands the new situations put on Thaddeus provided an opportunity for his character to grow through the course of the story.

I’m not sure how realistic the portrayal of Lady Anne is and whether there are any examples of women who took on these leading roles in their estates, but her character is the one that ties all of the story together and she is the one who sets the moral standards in things like equality.

A very enjoyable read but a little disappointing that it obviously goes straight into the sequel so I did feel I’d been left in suspense a little at the end.

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The Cellar – Minette Walters

513Wiwdj7SLTitle – The Cellar

Author – Minette Walters

Published -May 2015

Genre – ?

This is another book that defied me to put it in a neat genre category – but that’s something I will come back to. I am a huge Minette Walters fan, having read all of her previous titles starting with The Ice House in 1992 (which won the CWA John Creasey award). Her books were all standalone stories and a mix of crime fiction and psychological thrillers with a realism akin to the Nicci French books I also love. With the last novel being published in 2007 I was therefore thrilled when The Cellar was published earlier this year. At just shy of 250 pages it’s more of a novella than a novel, but is still longer than the few ‘quick reads’ that she has written in the interim.

The main character in the story is Muna and it soon becomes clear that she is a young African girl being kept as a domestic slave by an African family somewhere in England. When one of the family’s sons goes missing they are unable to prevent strangers (the police) entering the house and so they present Muna as their brain-damaged daughter. Clearly under the control of Yetunde and Ebuka she is unable or unwilling to speak up for herself; her dreams of seeking help seem to be shattered.

What we discover from Muna, however, is that they have underestimated her. Her distressing narrative documents the horrors that have befallen her at the hands of this couple and their sons, but as the story progresses she assumes a greater and greater confidence. As she tells the father ‘I am what you … have made me’. Her mis-treatment has hardened her and removed any chance of affection and it is at a price they will pay.

The book keeps a steady pace, throwing in some unexpected twists and turns and Walters’ writing is faultless. So back to the issue of genre. Buying the book based on the author alone I was expecting something with more of a crime fiction basis, or a psychological thriller. While it has aspects of both, and reminded me of some of the more recent Ruth Rendell titles, the odd page or two at the very end made me think of Stephen King. And then I discover that the book was published by Hammer and all of a sudden it made sense.

Not quite the Minette Walters I remember, but still a topical, thought-provoking and disturbing read. You can see another point of view on the Eurocrime blog.

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