Shadow of the RopeDecember 13, 2011
Have you ever read Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers? This starts a lot like that, with a young woman on trial for murder. He’s her husband rather than her ex-boyfriend, but you’ve got the discussion of the evidence, the samples of popular opinion, and the faithfully attending onlooker whose main interest is in the accused. It’s similar enough — more in the way it’s described than in the details of the story — that I think Sayers must have read it, and been inspired by it.
The similarities end with the trial. Rachel Minchin is acquitted of the murder of her husband, but she finds, on her release from prison, that she has nowhere to go. The public believes her guilty, and a mob attacks her house. Not that she can stay there anyway — all her stuff’s been cleared out. She has no friends, and no one believes in her innocence. That’s when the mysterious Mr. James Buchanan Steel shows up, doing an excellent job at walking the fine line between kindly benefactor and creepy stalker. She vaguely remembers him from the trial, and she finds him kind of fascinating, so eventually she agrees to his proposal of marriage.
When Steel takes Rachel to his home in the country, after marrying her abroad, he tells her that they’re going to pretend the past never happened, and that no one will recognize her as someone who has been on trial for murder. It pretty quickly becomes clear that this isn’t true — that it’s only a matter of time before her identity is revealed to her neighbors. At the same time, Rachel is simultaneously getting to know Steel better and learning disturbing things about him. The mystery of who actually killed Rachel’s husband isn’t investigated until surprisingly late in the book, when a writer who falls in love with Rachel vows to clear her name. The twists that follow are a bit unconvincing — especially the resolution of the romance plot, which kind of negates a lot of the fun, creepy gothic stuff that had been going on.
I would have liked The Shadow of the Rope a lot more if it had done what I thought it was going to do from about halfway through the book, but it’s hard to argue with the way Hornung complicates the plot. I did think the ending was weak, but I liked the attempt to mix things up and sidestep expectations. The Shadow of the Rope was better than I thought it would be, but I almost wish it hadn’t been. Only almost, though.