The long Edwardian twilight provides the backdrop for James Wilson's "novel of mystery", set in 1910. The narrator, Corley Roper, is a successful children's author on the verge of a nervous breakdown following his daughter's death from scarlet fever. He's driving himself to distraction on a solitary walking tour when he meets a spaniel apparently gifted with speech. "Well, you're a rum 'un and no mistake," the dog says, perceptively.
This serves as a prologue to a meeting with a desperate and mysterious woman, Mary Wilson, in a rain-soaked churchyard. Mary has come to bury a box containing a lock of hair from her stillborn son. When she is called away, Roper does the job for her, and finds that, in some sense, he has become the unwilling host of the dead boy's restless spirit.
Roper's attempt to lay the ghost by discovering the woman's history forms the narrative spine of the novel. Other ghosts need facing. The death of his daughter has left him incapable of continuing with his children's series; and without Mr Largo Frog and co, he can't earn a living. The bereavement has also led to the long-awaited demise of his marriage to an incompatible woman.
In pursuit of the truth about bitter, unhappy Mary, Roper plunges from the South Coast to Derbyshire, Oxfordshire to Paris, Leicestershire to London. He rambles across the country with an obliging literary friend in a Gypsy caravan. His investigation is underpinned by a mesh of coincidences, but it's almost a pleasure to suspend disbelief. Meanwhile, he is pursued by Alice Dangerfield, an attractive American journalist whose childhood admiration for Largo Frog has become an adult obsession with his creator.
Wilson's previous novels have shown his skill at creating characters who occupy a plausible past. He is equally good here, with his lovingly detailed Edwardian world and the certainties of its inhabitants. As author and reader know, time is running out for them. The book is beautifully written, too; Roper's prose never seems anachronistic. (Roper is not a portrait of Kenneth Grahame, but there are undoubted echoes.)
Only the ending is a little unsatisfactory, perhaps because too much is resolved, too easily. A common problem with ghost stories: it's almost always better to travel fearfully than to arrive.
Andrew Taylor's latest novel is 'Bleeding Heart Square' (Michael Joseph)Reuse content