Another standalone novel from Reginald Hill, The Stranger House is set once again in his (and my) native Cumbria. The action centres on the village pub in Illthwaite, Stranger House, almost the last surviving “social centre” of the village having lost its shops and its post office, but still having its church, several farms, and the imposing Illthwaite Hall. The Hall has been in the Woolass family for generations and they are destined to play an increasing role in the book as the plot develops.
The main characters in the plot are firstly, Sam Flood, a young Australian woman recently graduated in mathematics from Melbourne University. She has come to England primarily to read for a master’s degree at Trinity College, Cambridge. (The college of Isaac Newton). But she has decided to visit Cumbria to attempt to trace her grandmother, who she believes she was named after, but who died giving birth to her father. Apparently her grandmother was shipped off to Australia from Cumbria as an 11 year old orphan in 1960.
The second main character is Miguel Madero, a young ex trainee priest from Spain who is now researching for his PhD. Miguel’s research involves tracing an ancestor who was shipwrecked in 1589 from the Spanish Armada attempting to invade England. And ….. you’ve guessed it, this ancestor floated up onto a Cumbrian beach!
Sam and Miguel meet as they are both staying at the Stranger House pub in the village, initially investigating different people, different era, different events and incidents. Slowly but surely however, the two storylines become entwined, as do Sam and Miguel, leading towards an explosive climax.
This is a novel full of great intrigue and mystery; a dying village full of people with secrets; characters such as Eadie the pub landlady, the Gauda twins, the reverend Pete, Noddy the ex head of Cumbrian CID, Thor the sculptor and artist, and of course the entire Woolass family. It is a well written tale, just like a jigsaw where all of the pieces must fit perfectly together, but in this case where the overall picture cannot be seen until complete! There’s a cold logic to much of the research by mathematician Sam, balanced by the more emotional, spiritual and insightful approach of Miguel. As well as mystery lovers this book would be enjoyed by genealogists or anyone thinking about tracing their ancestors, though you may not come across as many skeletons ….. literally!