Set in Wiltshire in 1922, The Hiding Places is a mystery which throws together two unlikely allies. When Donny Cartwright is accused of murder – he was caught holding the bloodied murder weapon – the police, unable to find any other suspects, look no further.
Not that the police are sloppy. Inspector Blackman likes to know ‘the why’ of a crime, and Donny didn’t have any reason to commit murder. But Donny, once a talented youth with his heart set on studying engineering, has returned from the war a damaged man. Mere days before, he’d lost control and smashed to pieces two rose bushes at the Hadleighs’ Manor Farm where he works in the garden.
Donny’s teenage sister Pudding (she was a tubby child and the name sort of stuck) is determined to prove Donny’s innocence – he said he didn’t do it and that’s enough for her. Pudding also works at Manor Farm, taking care of the horses, though her father, the local doctor, thinks she has university potential. But with Donny to care for and now her mother showing signs of dementia, she’s not going anywhere.
Oddly enough everything seems to have started with the discovery of an old doll at Manor Farm. Irene Hadleigh has had trouble settling in as the new wife of Alistair Hadleigh. Alistair’s Aunt Nancy dotes on her nephew but is chilly and supercilious towards the incomer. Irene has escaped a scandal through her marriage but is still broken-hearted. So to please her, Alistair’s having the old schoolroom made into her study. When they pull off the mantlepiece and clear out the chimney, the discovery of the doll creates a sense of unease among the workmen – could the doll have been cursed?
The story recounts Pudding and Irene’s gradual friendship through their determination to uncover the murderer. Surprisingly they are both good for each other – Pudding with her chatter brings Irene out of her shell and even gets her riding. Having something important to do gives Irene a bit of backbone. Gradually events from the past make their way to the surface and a bundle of secrets, simmering jealousies and evil intent emerge.
I raced through The Hiding Places, which turned out to be the perfect read for a day of torrential rain. There are some wonderful secondary characters, including PC Dempsey, who has a soft spot for Pudding; Dr Cartwright, Pudding’s troubled father who valiantly tries to put on a brave face but doesn’t always succeed; and young, nature-loving Clemmie, forever mute, who could have stepped out of Hardy. In fact, the atmospheric rural setting, the relentless heat of summer, the distinctions of class also reminded me of Hardy, but maybe with a little less impending doom.
As for the story, there’s a decent sort of twist towards the end that will have you flipping back through the book thinking, ‘How did I miss that?’ The plot then powers on to a satisfactory ending, not Hardy-like at all, thank goodness. Webb is an accomplished storyteller, and with complex characters plus a nice way with prose, there is a lot to enjoy. Four out of five from me.