Book Review: The Mermaid’s Call by Katherine Stansfield
Katherine Stansfield’s Cornish Mysteries series moves to the unforgiving North Cornwall coast where Shilly and Anna are to investigate whether The Mermaid’s Call lured a man to his death.
Cornwall, 1845. Shilly has always felt a connection to happenings that are not of this world, a talent that has proved invaluable when investigating dark deeds with master of disguise, Anna Drake. The women opened a detective agency with help from their newest member and investor, Mathilda, but six long months have passed without a single case to solve and tensions are growing.
It is almost a relief when a man is found dead along the Morwenstow coast and the agency is sought out to investigate. There are suspicions that wreckers plague the coast, luring ships to their ruin with false lights – though nothing has ever been proved. Yet with the local talk of sirens calling victims to the sea to meet their end, could something other-worldly be responsible for the man’s death?
A slightly more compact hardback for this third book in the Cornish Mysteries series but the cover is every bit as eye-catching and beautiful as those of its predecessors: Falling Creatures and The Magpie Tree.
When the book opens, we find Shilly and Anna on the coast in Boscastle, renting rooms above a butcher’s shop. They’re joined by Mathilda, who also appeared in The Magpie Tree, as they wait for a new case. It comes to their rooms in the shape of a drowned man:
He was soaked. Not just his clothes but his skin, too… the water seemed to pour from him… His broad face was coarse with stubble. This made him seem grey… He surely had come to us from the bottom of the sea.
Reading this whole scene where the captain describes the dream that brought him so abruptly home from sea, and which ends with Shilly describing someone: “As if she was the sea herself” was so powerful that I became fully immersed in the story and barely surfaced again until I’d finished The Mermaid’s Call.
Shilly and Anna’s investigations take them further up the coast from Boscastle to Bude and Morwenstow and Katherine Stansfield uses her poetic powers to fully realise this part of Cornwall within the pages of The Mermaid’s Call. I was dragged through the cloying mud in the lanes and fields, overwhelmed by the creeping stench in the churchyard, felt the pull of the clamouring sea beyond the cliffs and sensed myself being buffeted across the windswept fields towards them.
The very houses themselves seemed to hold secrets, made me fear the sound of bumps in the night or breathy whispers behind closed doors, and lingering coughs warned me away from certain cottages. The animals scratching at the rectory doors and pulpit of the church totally unnerved me and I felt they threatened to overrun at any moment, although they were probably far more benign than that.
In a place where mermaids and spirits didn’t seem that unlikely, Shilly and Anna clearly weren’t going to be the most eccentric characters around. And The Mermaid’s Call didn’t disappoint in this regard by conjuring up a fictionalised version of a real-life local character. He was an enigma for most of the book; I couldn’t decide where he fell on the scale of good to bad, despite his profession, and wondered if he had fallen somewhere in between, thanks to living in a remote parish with such a high instance of shipwrecks.
There’s real friction in this book between Shilly and Anna, one which isn’t fully resolved by the end of The Mermaid’s Call, which was a little frustrating. The source of the tension between them is teased throughout but that, together with Mathilda’s role, felt a little underdone and took the edge off the ending.
That said, there’s more than enough here to compensate for that lack of resolution. There’s the idea of a dream being powerful enough to bring someone home; the captain as drowned man and then increasingly tortured insomniac; the Vicarage and its inhabitants are fascinating and have prompted me to learn more about their real-life counterparts; the handling of the mermaid myth was wonderful and felt both authentic and like a fresh take on it; and I felt real sympathy for those poor fortunate souls who are ostracised, while raging about how differently people view the promises they make to one another.
The Mermaid’s Call is a darkly evocative and intoxicating fusion of Cornwall’s myths and its past lives with a murder mystery that tests the resilience of the new detective agency. One in which each partner sees the world differently but whose synergy is exciting, if not wholly without friction.
The Mermaid’s Call by Katherine Stansfield is published by Allison and Busby, an imprint of Profile Books. It is available as an ebook and in hardback with the paperback due out next year. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive where every purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. The Mermaid’s Tail is the third book in the Cornish Mysteries series.
Katherine Stansfield is a novelist and poet whose debut novel The Visitor won the Holyer an Gof Fiction Award. She grew up in the wilds of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall and lived on the west coast of Wales for many years. For more information on her and her writing, check out her Author Blog or find her on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.
To celebrate publication day for The Mermaid’s Call, I have a signed copy of the first two books in the Cornish Mysteries series to give away. To win Falling Creatures and The Magpie Tree, leave a comment below to go in the draw. The squirrels will pick a winner on Sunday.