T “he Taxidermist’s Daughter”, by Kate Mosse is a dark and dreary murder mystery set in England in 1912. Constantia (Connie) Gifford lives on the outskirts of town, and on the fringes of society, caring for her reclusive and alcoholic father, while trying to maintain his taxidermy business and his dignity.
The story opens at midnight in a churchyard, with the town gathered together on the eve of St. Mark, when ghosts of those who will die in the upcoming year are believed to show themselves. Rather than ghosts, the residents are bewildered by a prank involving thousands of black birds, and an even more bewildering and mysterious murder. Suspicion begins to fall on Connie’s drunkard father, but with his unintentional help, memories from Connie’s lost childhood begin to surface, directing suspicion elsewhere. Connie was witness to an unspeakable crime as a child, but a head injury erased her memory. Now, details begin to surface, and Mosse takes us on a roller coaster that keeps us guessing about that old crime, the new murder, and whether either of these are now related to the disappearance of several prominent figures in the community. Connie is forced to balance the love she has for her father with her own suspicions about his involvement, as she tries to wipe away a web of deceit.
Characters are introduced at different points of the story, some are respectable and some are heinous, but we often don’t know into which category they fall until the conclusion of the story. All of the characters play a role in the plot, but more than once I found myself back-tracking, because I got confused about who was who. It was easily corrected and not so confusing as to make me want to abandon the book.
You can expect a glimmer or two of hope and romance spread throughout the pages, but for the most part, “The Taxidermist’s Daughter” is full of dark images, and rich in landscape description. Mosse’s frequent use of black birds like magpies, rooks and crows, gives us a sense of gloom and death foreshadowed. We are bombarded with images of rain, mud, marshes and floods, as well as desolation and loneliness. I wonder if her style had been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. Some of this darkness, however, has an educational aspect. Without being too gory, we are introduced to the art of taxidermy, where something dead can have new life through the act of preservation.
Mosse provides the clues and the hints, spaced far enough apart to keep us playing detective for most of the book. She is masterful at keeping us interested, and keeping us guess- ing. There is a proverb that says “Old sins cast long shadows”, and in this novel, the motive of revenge will be the light that eliminates those shadows. The conclusion is wonderful, and the ending is the most light-hearted part of the book, a proper way to end on a positive note. So as the colder months approach, if you’re interested in a good mystery to accompany you in front of the fire, I can recommend “The Taxidermist’s Daughter”, and see for yourself if justice will be served.
“The Taxidermist’s Daughter”, 2016, Harper Collins.