Although from the opening pages readers may be confused by the relationships between the characters, Marjorie Eccles’ After Clare is one of those highly anticipated books that is labeled a “compelling mystery.” Coming from a favorite author who knows how to create evil intent among England’s aristocracy, the novel--set a few years after the Great War--comfortably fits into a place where we can readily identify with the angst of all the major stakeholders.
In November 1922, Lady Emily Fitzallan has no intention of being put out of her childhood home of Leysmorton Manor. A poised, elegant woman, Emily spends her days ruminating over her unpredictable, sour marriage to Paddy Fitzallan.
Her heart was really gifted to handsome Hugh Markham, a decisive and sensible old flame who, for most of his working life, has been linchpin of the Peregrine Press, the family publishing business.
Amid the tangled framework of beauty and desire that is Leysmorton Estate, Emily spends her time brooding and, yes, creating drama for those around her, especially with regard to the wedding of Dee Markham, daughter of Gerald Markham. Eccles’ characters possess edgy qualities that appeal to a darker perspective: Poppy and Val Drummond, Londoners who are alone in the world and as "poor as church mice," and Dirk Stronglove and his sister, Marta Heeren, who have returned to live at Leysmorton
following the war. Dirk in particular bears the dark anguish of a man who fears he is going blind.
Emily walks among Leysmorton’s rose walk, admiring the lily pond and the great yew that Emily’s enigmatic older sister, Clare, named the Hecate tree. She
is touched by cold, distant fingers of the old family mystery: Clare’s disappearance and the old yew tree that
projects menace. When Hugh’s daughter, Rosie, unearths a skull near the tree, Emily calls upon London detective Adam Novak, but the discovery
finally forces her to finally acknowledge Clare's troubled, enigmatic past.
From the outset, the reader is fully aware that Novak is going to solve the mystery of the body and that Emily is going to see the light and find a way through the bitter, unanswered questions over
how her sister could have been so cruel as to condemn her family to a lifetime of
wondering what happened to her. Her mind blank with shock and dread, Emily is relieved when Novak informs her that the body is that of an unidentified man, and not Clare.
Yet the knot of fear continues to twist itself up inside her as the raw grief and pain which has never completely healed
From this point, Eccles’ novel moves with a swift frenzy. The narrative
flashes back to 1875, when Emily longs to be presented at court and become the beautiful Miss Vavasour and eventually marry a handsome man, quite possibly a young Lord. Her aspirations are so different from Clare, who becomes absorbed with the Hecate tree. Clare’s obsession with the myth and magic surrounding the tree leaves the reader pondering Leysmorton’s many ghosts: those of the soldiers who once lived there; the sad daughter who mysteriously vanished; the subterfuge of blackmail; and the victim, a soldier boy for whose death Novak has yet to find a reason.
With twists and turns, Eccles enfolds us within her story, the plot humming with the beauty of Leysmorton and neighboring Netherley.
She generates a sympathetic portrait of Emily and Hugh--and above all, the interjection of Novak, who fights to bring justice to those who deprived a young fellow of life and left him rotting in such an “ignominious grave.”