Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press © 2016
The eighth volume in the chronicles of Cyrus Barker, private inquiry agent in late 19th century London, narrated by his young assistant Thomas Llewelyn. In keeping with the previous books in the series, this is an excellent way to spend a few hours.
Barker is asked, by Lord Hargrave (who has some ill-defined position in the Foreign Office), to provide security for a week-long visit by the French ambassador (M. Gascoigne) to Hargrave’s home on a private island off the west coast of England. The public purpose of the week is to try to find husbands for Hargrave’s two daughters; the real purpose is to negotiate an understanding with France to restrain Germany and Russia. No one really expects any trouble, so what Hargrave is doing amounts to taking out insurance.
Until Hargrave is shot, by a high-powered rifle by an unseen marksman. Now things become difficult.
For Hargrave, the island was a retreat. Only his family and servants, and a lighthouse keeper live on the island. When they need outside assistance, they either hoist a red flag as a signal for one of the boats from the nearby islands to make a call, or they send a signal from the lighthouse. In short order, the flag has been stolen and the flagpole sabotaged, and the lighthouse put out of commission and its keeper killed. And others begin to be murdered as well.
It remains unclear who is behind all this, and whether the motive is personal or political. The house party consists of a rather ill-assorted bunch, providing Barker and Llewelyn ample scope for exploring possible motives. Llewelyn is a fine narrator, and it’s only the knowledge that he is writing this account some years later that lets us know that the situation has been, somehow resolved—but not whether that resolution is acceptable.
The pacing of the book maintains the tension inherent in the situation, and if it is in some ways reminiscent of other stories of a group isolated on an island/by a storm (e.g., Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, under whichever of its titles you prefer), it’s not an imitation. The resolution actually makes sense, and it does not wipe away the sense of looming disaster that the book evokes. If you have not yet met Barker and Llewelyn, you should, and while you can start here, wherever you start, I think you will want to read them all.