Mathilda Gillespie is not a nice woman. Elderly and irascible, she has few friends, clinging to supposed gentility to separate herself from the common villagers, isolated in her wealth and her pain as the years advance: “Unnatural needs do breed unnatural troubles.”
When Mathilda is found dead in her bathtub, a crown of vines and nettles arranged in a scold’s bridle on her head - a medieval instrument of repression used to curtail the nagging tongues of women - the ghastly parody of Ophelia is not lost on the police inspector, nor the examining physician. After years of pain from chronic arthritis, it is assumed that Mathilda has inventively taken her own life. As events dictate, the judgment of suicide is soon amended to murder.
Mathilda’s greedy and conniving daughter and granddaughter, Joanne and Ruth Lascelles, repair to Cedar House, anxious to claim the estate they have long coveted. Both are shocked when informed that Mathilda has written a new will, leaving all of her estate to Sarah Blakeney, the GP who has treated the elderly woman for the past year since the retirement of her prior physician.
Sarah is not particularly gratified by this discovery, with no idea of the woman’s intentions after their very short relationship. It is to Sarah’s credit, however, that she has no quarrel with Mathilda as an individual, rather liking the curmudgeonly old woman for her forthrightness (“the only person… who came to [Mathilda] without prejudice and took her as she was”). Still, Sarah has no desire to tangle with an obviously dysfunctional family, their relationships profoundly troubled and mutually destructive.
Suddenly the truly unsavory Lascelles women are dependent on Sarah’s goodwill to receive any remuneration, the town reeling with gossip about the physician, patients assuming Sarah is complicit in the old woman’s death. Sarah has trouble enough on her hands, particularly her dilettante husband, Jack, an artist who considers himself a Renaissance man and she a faithless roué.
Jack’s familiarity with the deceased increases the subtleties of a plot rife with deception and cynicism, as he avidly pursues the extraordinarily beautiful Joanne, angling to paint her portrait, yet another wound to his wife’s delicate psyche, Sarah’s self-confidence in some doubt. It would seem that Jack is an utter brute - that is, until he takes a distraught Ruth under his wing when she is expelled from school and threatened by a violent older boyfriend.
Gradually even Cooper, the police detective, falls under Jack’s charismatic spell despite every indication that Sarah’s spouse may be the murderer. Filled with mendacious characters, Walters boggles the mind with the familial avariciousness that surrounds Mathilda Gillespie, a kind of pervasive evil that infects an entire family from one generation to another. There is no doubt of the significance of the scold’s bridle, both as a physical and metaphorical restraint in this diabolical and brilliant novel, yet Walters manages to find humor among the brambles, her incisive observation of human nature a constant delight.