Friday, February 15, 2008

The Woman in Black

I was perusing the Amazon bestsellers list when I first stumbled on Susan Hill’s mystery The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story. Why the book, originally published in 1983, was on the list in the first place is likely the greatest mystery of all.

Lawyer Arthur Kipps is sorting through a deceased client’s paperwork at Eel House when he first encounters the titular woman in black. The house and the woman are shrouded in mystery, and the local villagers refuse to reveal their history to Kipps. Instead, to his detriment, Kipps is left to muddle through the mystery on his own.

The story is predictable but altogether inoffensive. According to its blurb, the book is meant to be a throwback to the Victorian novel. The idea is intriguing, but I found it rather disturbing to read a contemporary (okay, it is now over 20 years old) novel written in the Victorian style. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White clearly inspired Hill. The anachronistic writing style, though, is a distraction more than anything else.

Another interesting addition to the book is John Lawrence’s illustrations. The black-and-white sketches are again an unnecessary distraction and inconsistent with a mystery novel. In one case, an illustration reveals a “shocking surprise” found on a subsequent page.

I might recommend the book to lovers of the Victorian mystery—if there weren’t already so many authentic novels available to read instead.

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