In her new novel Newport, Jill Morrow creates a mystery worthy of Masterpiece Theatre with unexpected and clever twists on the British model. One surprise is there is no crime and no death—until the gathering-of-the-suspects scene. And then there’s another surprise, and another.
It’s the 1920s and suave lawyer Adrian de la Noye is on a ferry to Newport. He’s on his way to an opulent sea view cottage, “beautiful in an old-fashioned, lavender-and-crepe sort of way,” at the insistence of his firm’s wealthiest client to draft a new will. At Adrian’s side is his awkward young colleague Jim Reid.
At Liriodendron (The real Liriodendron can be found in Belair, Maryland, rather than Newport, Rhode Island) their client’s drunken daughter and nasty son demand to have their father declared senile. But Bennett Chapman, though in a wheelchair, is not about to be undercut by his unloved children. It’s his voluptuous fiancee in a red dress who is pulling on his pursestrings—or is she? I know, I know. I was thinking the same thing: Hercule Poirot. Miss Marple. Sherlock Holmes. Yes, but not exactly.
In form, Newport follows the British conventions of the genre. The characters are tightly constrained in the physical space of the mansion/cottage and the nearby sea cliffs, and hints and clues to the mystery are served up a nibble at a time through staged confrontations and conversations. But Jill Morrow adds a slap of modern life to the early 1920s with strong women characters and men who wade into emotional waters without brooding.
A double tension holds the reader’s interest. The first: What is the crime? When will it happen? Will the flashbacks uncover a crime happened long ago? The second: Who is being fooled, by whom, and why?
Consider the usual suspects.
Adrian, in a white suit, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a Fatima cigarette, is irresistible to women, and admired by men. For him, controlling the legalities, and the intentions of Bennett’s grown children is child’s play, but a glance exchanged with the smoldering Catherine ignites a secret past. Will nightly telephone conversations be enough to keep him faithful to his beloved wife, who was once his stenographer?
Catharine Walsh is a beauty with bobbed curls, and a curvy figure. At forty, she’s younger than both of Bennett Chapman’s children, and despised by them. She despises Nicolas in return and ignores the drunken Chloe “draped across a chair like a discarded fur throw.” Her attitude toward the man she’s about to marry for his money is neither fawning nor loving.
Nicolas and Chloe are aging society brats who never grew up. Is Chloe merely supporting Nicky’s claim to the inheritance? What is her true relationship with her father and her deceased mother? Is there more to Nicky than his angry outbursts?
Bennett Chapman, an aging captain of industry, insists he will marry Catherine and change his will in her favor. Is he besotted by a beautiful gold-digger, or intimidated from beyond the grave by his dead wife Elizabeth who speaks in the voice of Catharine’s niece Amy? Or, is he senile as his children claim, a dupe of Amy’s spiritualist imaginings? Can he be trusted to know the truth about Elizabeth, about Catharine, about Amy?
Jim Reid is Adrian’s guileless but intelligent sidekick. Jim knows he doesn’t trust Catharine. It’s Amy, “a small whirlwind of yellow and pink,” with a cascade of blonde curls that he can’t figure out. Her flirting takes his breath away. At one moment, he’s willing to believe she’s clairvoyant. At the next, he’s sure she’s a clever fake.
Elizabeth Chapman has been dead for thirty-five years. After all this time, is Amy truly speaking on her behalf? Does Elizabeth really want Bennett to marry Catharine and change his will? Is she the genuine article or a tool?
Pay attention and you’ll discover some answers, but I hope you don’t figure out everything ahead of time. Be good to being surprised.
Newport will be launched at 7pm on July 8, 2015, at The Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Rd., Baltimore, MD 21209. Jill Morrow who used to be one of our bloggers at Late Last Night Books, is also the author of Angel Cafe, and The Open Channel.