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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Lake House by Kate Morton

Atria Books, 512 pages, $28 (release date - 10/20/15)

The gothic novel never really died, but if it had, Kate Morton would single-handedly be responsible for its resurrection. In “The Lake House,” there are tragic heroes and heroines, an old mansion, wickedness, and secrets that go boo! in the night. There are also a couple of intertwining story lines, one contemporary (2003) and the other hidden in the 1930s and 40s.

The contemporary heroine, Sadie Sparrow, has been “ten years on the police force, five as a detective” in London, and she’s in trouble. Teased out in bits to the end of the book is why Sadie is “vacationing” at her grandfather’s home in Cornwall. Initially, we find out that Sadie has talked with a reporter about a case, leaking details condemnatory of the police actions.

To while away the time and avoid thinking about how much trouble she is in, she runs with her grandfather’s dogs. They stumble across a crumbling estate, with a mansion worthy of a true gothic tale. Curious about why the interior of the mansion seems intact, with personal effects still scattered as if the occupants had meant to return in a minute, Sadie investigates what turns out to be the sad story behind the estate of Loeanneth, Cornish for “The Lake House.”

In 1933, the youngest child of a well-to-do family, 11-month-old Theo, disappears on Midsummers Eve. A few days later the body of a family friend and treasured house guest is found in the river. Disconsolate and grieving, the family moves to London, leaving Loeanneth to crumble into its surroundings.

In 2003, eighty-six-year-old Alice Edevane and her older sister, Deborah, are what remain of the household at the time of the disappearance. Alice is now a famous writer of detective novels: “Alice’s books were English mysteries, but there was nothing cosy about them. They were the sort of crime novels reviewers liked to describe as ‘psychologically taut’ and ‘morally ambiguous’, whydunits as much as they were whos or hows.” (Personally, I envisioned Ruth Rendell.) She harbors a secret concerning the night her brother disappeared. Most of the book is the slow unveiling of what she and others in her family knew of that night.

Sadie doggedly pursues, unofficially, this case that ended with no conclusion or suspects. Had Theo been kidnapped? There was no ransom note. Had he been murdered? A body was never found. There were too many people on the grounds of Loeanneth to be of any help in narrowing down suspects. Was Daffyd Llewellyn, the unfortunate man who died the same night, involved?

There are many possibilities and Morton throws them all up in the air, along with the story of Sadie’s personal travails with the police and her life. So many people have voices in this book that it felt too crowded at times. Since much was revealed in other ways, some of the characters could have done without personal surveillance. There are stories set during World Wars I and II, and while nothing new was revealed, Morton did a good, atmospheric job of incorporating the horrors of war. (Just an aside for you to ponder after you finish the book: Was the name "Sophie" chosen for a character on purpose or was there a subconscious agent working?)

In the end, “The Lake House” is a novel more of romance than mystery. Morton is a great storyteller and can sweep a family epic convincingly. And speaking of sweeping, thank goodness, I say, for a tidy ending!

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