An avid reader, Stephen's knowledge of Crime Fiction is fairly extensive, with The Golden Age is his greatest interest.
This tale of strange powers amid a superstitious and poor community in a rural backwater of Cornwall in 1844 is a Gothic mystery to savor.
Falling Creatures is a story of impoverished people in a dark foreboding landscape of mental illness, alcoholism and the supernatural. While the age of Science and the Industrial Revolution is roaring ahead in the big cities of England and the Factory Act had imposed maximum working days of 12 hours for women [as the agricultural communities of Cornwall are little changed since the late Middle Ages]. A strict religious code does not always overcome the age old rituals and beliefs of the uneducated poor.
When a daughter is sold into domestic servitude, by an alcoholic father, she is at once bound in friendship to her fellow young servant woman, Charlotte Dymond, who is taken into service at the same time. Charlotte is a hypnotic individual capable of bewitching people, as she claims to have very unusual powers and a knowledge of sorcery. The two young women are treated quite differently on the farm they are taken to. The younger one is named Shilly because of her ‘shilly shallying’ ways [always behind in her work]; while Charlotte appears to be often let off from work, and never scolded.
Charlotte is obviously of a higher class because she can read. Her mother is a schoolteacher who has turned her out of her home because of the shame of her being illegitimate. She says it is her most treasured wish that she should be accepted back home by her mother and she begins making regular Sunday journeys back to her home village of Boscastle. But, Charlotte wants more than work as a farm servant as she is intent on becoming mistress of the farm. Her charms seem to inveigle any man into doing her bidding.
One wet and misty night Charlotte goes out with the farm hand, Matthew Weeks, to walk over the moor. Later and in the dark the farm hand returns disheveled, but without Charlotte. The farm-hand is suspected of doing away with the young woman, and when her body is found he flees the farm but is caught and committed for trial. But, someone believes in the farm-hand's innocence, namely - Mr Williams of Scotland Yard. After the committal hearing, Mr Williams seeks out the other servant girl Shilly to ask for her help in finding the murderer and proving Weeks' innocence.
Shilly is reluctant to help Mr Williams not wanting to trust an outsider until he reveals his own secret to her. Between them they must try to question those who live and work on the moor without giving away what they are doing for fear of giving the murderer a warning.
This Victorian Gothic murder mystery is shrouded in the natural mists and supernatural fogs of Bodmin Moor. Ms Stansfield develops a claustrophobic mood full of dangers from both the elements and landscape. Marsh and bog drag the unsuspecting to a cold and wet grave while storms and bitter winds disorientate and freeze. Throughout the practice of witchcraft and local superstitions pervade.
At first glance, this novel appears grim and macabre but it once the spine is cracked, it becomes a truly fascinating mystery to relish.