Judith Cutler – Shadow of the Past (2008)

(an unused rte review)

Rev Tobias Campion is the vicar of a country parish in Warwickshire in the early 19th century; 1811 to be precise in the case of SHADOW OF THE PAST. He is actually the younger son of a great aristocrat who has renounced his family’s, and especially his father’s, values, wealth and lifestyle because he felt called to his vocation. His other identity is generally kept secret apart from his close friends the Hansards, and his groom and companion Jem. A considerable stir is caused in the village when Lady Chase returns to take up residence at Moreton Hall one of the great houses of the area. Lady Chase is engaged in a search for her son and heir Hugo who went missing during the Peninsular War. She refuses to accept that he is dead, much to the frustration of her avaricious nephew Marcus Bramhall who’s whole family descend upon Moreton Hall, including the lovely Dorothea for whom Tobias falls. But he is concerned about the ill-treatment accorded to the governess Miss Southey, who disappears on the very day that she discovers the body of a man in a river. When it is ascertained that the man was murdered Campion is drawn into investigating not just the murder but also chasing after both Hugo and Miss Southey. His quest takes him from Warwickshire to the slummiest parts of London.

It seems to me that there are very considerable disadvantages in treading in the footsteps of the departed greats unless one is a truly brilliant writer. Judith Cutler must have known what she was doing in taking on not just one but two such greats but I cannot see they work to her advantage. In the first place there is Tobias Campion; one’s mind is instantly drawn to the incomparable Albert and all the more so as they are both scions of noble houses who move mostly in complete disguise; but Tobias is a very limited character in comparison with Albert (indeed who in mystery fiction would not be?). Then in the second place this book is set in Georgette Heyer territory. Of all historic periods this, in my view, is the worst to take on because Georgette pretty much sewed it up. All the cant terms, the London locations, the fashions – any Georgette fan will have encountered them all before. There are possible ways around this problem ; one would be to employ a wholly different social and political outlook to Heyer’s conservative one. Cutler makes some attempt in this direction with Campion’s social conscience but it is not enough. Or you could depart altogether from ‘Heyer’s world’ and go back to the writers of the period itself for your inspiration; in the case of a country vicar there is the wonderful poetry of Crabbe (and his son’s life of the poet who was indeed a country vicar). Or of course you could come up with a brilliant puzzle plot; unfortunately the plot of SHADOW OF THE PAST, while pleasant enough, is basically a simple quest one with very few, if any surprises.

SHADOW OF THE PAST is not a bad book; it reads easily and is perfectly pleasant. But by drawing in upon itself comparisons with two greats it suffers. As remarked before this is a dangerous thing to do unless one is a very great writer.