It’s an April day of 1912 and Emerald Torrington is about to turn twenty. Her family is in fairly serious financial trouble but the worries are put aside for a day and everything is jolly. In the kitchen the servants are working away preparing the supper and a cake and the guests are on their way. Emerald and her two siblings have nothing to do but wait. The youngest of the three, Smudge, is the odd one in the bunch and is usually left to her own devices. On an exciting day like this she is almost entirely forgotten, so she chooses this day for her Great Undertaking, the ultimate mischief. I won’t spoil much by saying that almost everything goes according to her plan, because very soon all the residents of the mansion are completely absorbed by the appearance of the unexpected and very much unwelcome guests. A train accident on a branch line nearby leaves a couple of dozen survivors that need to be put up for the evening. And horror of horrors, they all seem to be from the third class. What a disgrace to a respectable household. There is only one gentleman among the group; he is quickly weeded out and invited to the birthday party.
His name is Charles Traversham-Beechers and turns out to be an old acquaintance of the lady of the house. Judging by her reaction he is not anymore welcome than the third-class hordes. Don’t worry if you are struggling to remember his name, the characters in the book have a similar problem. And I appreciate that it is mostly due to my shortcomings and not some lack of skill on the part of Sadie Jones but initially I just mixed up everyone in this book, I couldn’t tell who was related to whom and who was merely employed, I even cheerfully confused men with horses and dogs. I finally got them sorted just in time for the story to take a more sinister turn. With the arrival of the hoi polloi led by Traversham-Beechers something shifts in the air and the pleasant dream turns into a disturbing one so gently that the characters can’t decide when it happened exactly.
The English weather can be counted on as usual to make the atmosphere even gloomier by sending clouds and a thunderstorm. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a book in possession of a gothic twist must be in want of a good old thunderstorm.
As in a classical theatrical play the whole story unwraps over the course of one day and night. The characters found themselves playing a game they never intended to play, rather than being a source of innocent joy it brings the worst out of them. By the end of the night they will learn things about themselves and each other that they never suspected.
And let’s not forget Smudge and her Great Undertaking. Did we just forget about Smudge like everybody else?
Any Cop?: The Uninvited Guests is not anything particularly monumental but it is a perfect read for another invariably rainy British bank holiday weekend. It has all the necessary ingredients: Edwardian times, mysterious guests, old mansion, family secrets and a stormy weather that make it delightful to read.