Where there's a Will but no way

THE GUEST by Charlotte Cory, Faber pounds 15.99
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It all begins most beguilingly. Hester Jones, a goody-goody young woman with a "plain little pancake face", loses her unloved parents, consigns their possessions to "oblivion", and sets off on the train to Penzance. But, falling asleep, she forgets to change trains and finds herself instead in the dowdy, dreamlike town of Knibden. The place is in turmoil: an "unknown guest" has died at the Gallimore Hotel, leaving a Mystery Will worth "millions". No one knows who the dead man was or to whom he has left his fortune, and the Will decrees that "someone who is not someone" must sort it out. As our heroine staggers through the wind and rain and into the local pub, you can guess what those townsfolk are thinking.

Conveniently, the crepe-faced Hester has no more pressing claims on her time, so she settles down in style at the Gallimore and begins her investigations. There's a deadline of three days, and it is agreed that a tea-dance for the whole of Knibden will take place on the Saturday evening, when the long-awaited announcement is due. "Expectations have been raised", for the lucky heir could be anyone in the town, from old General Bertram Bensusann, to Susie Till the bra-less hairdresser with black boots or Bill Parris the grave- digger.

Here's a community transformed by the possibility of riches, but - more to the point - supremely excited by the process and palaver of finding out. "Hope, like a great slumbering dog once awakened, will not lie down again easily. It barks and snaps the more ferociously for having been asleep. For the first time in years, people have something to live for."

Knibden, it turns out, is no stranger to money-mania. Many years ago, it was famous for its lottery. The practice was banned after causing too many problems: hidden crimes and small depravities which, the novel goes on to reveal, damaged the lives of half of Knibden.

Each person hazards guesses as to the deceased's identity, why they might be entitled and what they might do with the money - and so the townsfolk reach a new peak of excitement, and Hester's task seems all the more daunting. How (I really wanted to know) is she to discover the true intent of this perplexing and mischievous Will?

Unfortunately, she doesn't. It's not that Cory refuses to give us a conclusion, just that this initially promising device - woman without past arrives in town with nothing to lose and turns detective - seems to fall asleep on the job. Hundreds of pages later, Hester is not only none the wiser, she's all but faded from the narrative. Instead we have the lengthy ruminations of these meticulously chronicled but oddly two-dimensional townsfolk - the sinister bank manager, the feckless Wilkes-Tooley sisters, the "dangerous" dress-shop owner Norah Bird, and an impressively large number of others.

Impressive - for this town is tangibly populated - but frustratingly unfocused. This is an odd, elderly, miniature, make-believe world - vivid and perfectly realised, but dislocated as a dream. As the narrative swoops from character to character, names and faces change, but preoccupations and dialogues remain monotonously the same - Who can the dead guest be? What would we do with the money? Is Hester Jones up to the job?

Images are precise and lovely: a couple lie in bed "side by side not touching like seasoned floorboards", and a "dark-pink winceyette dressing- gown" is "the colour of cooked meat". Mannerisms and dialogue are pointedly old-fashioned - "You should have used the electric," says someone; "I don't often get lady visitors," admits another, and it's not until you happen on the Ford Fiestas and the motorbikes that it dawns on you the setting is even slightly contemporary.

It's no bad thing to be unnerved by a book and I remained optimistic - if a little perplexed - right through to the end. This is an ingenious novel, full of imaginative risks and - though I struggled at times, though I now and then lost patience and sympathy, even ultimately failed to grasp the point - I was left humbly wondering whether maybe that was my problem.