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Book Author: Catriona McPherson

STRANGERS AT THE GATE by Catriona McPherson: Book Review

Newlyweds Finnie Doyle and Paddy Lamb consider themselves very fortunate.  Paddy has been offered a partnership in a small country law firm, and he was still “under forty” as he excitedly told his wife.  And Finnie, who had been a bit more reluctant to move and begin searching for a job as a member of the Church of Scotland clergy, is pleased to discover that the church in the town next to their new home is looking for a deacon.  It seems a perfect match for both of them.

To add to what seems incredible good luck, Paddy has found someone who wants to sublet their flat for a year at a rate enough to cover the mortgage, and the senior partner in his new firm is allowing them to live in a small cottage on the grounds of his home.  What could be more perfect?

There is a downside, however, at least for Finnie.  She dislikes the gatehouse/cottage at first sight; it’s small, dark, and surrounded by hills and forest, not at all the charming home with latticed windows and crooked chimneys that Paddy has described.  But she’s here and will make the best of it, she tells herself.

A day after their arrival, they’re invited (Paddy’s word) or summoned (Finnie’s) to dinner at the lodge, home of Tuft and Lovatt Dudgeon.  Prepared to dislike both of them, Finnie finds herself admiring Tuft, a woman with a sly sense of humor.  Tuft sits on the fund-raising committee and board of St. Angela’s, the church where Finnie will have her first full-time job as a deacon.  So with that connection and the fact of Lovatt being the senior partner in Paddy’s law firm, it all could be seen as either fortuitous or incestuous, depending on one’s point of view.

However, the dinner goes well and Finnie is more relaxed on the way back to their gatehouse until, halfway there, she realizes that she left her handbag at the Dudeons’.  They have to go back and get it, she tells Paddy, because the key to their house is in it.  When they return to the lodge the front door is open and the lights are on, but no one answers the bell.  Finnie’s handbag is on the stand where she had left it, as they can see from a window, so they enter and call out for their hosts.  There’s no answer, so they venture into the kitchen, still calling for Tuft and Lovatt, and see the couples’ bloody bodies on the kitchen floor.

Finnie’s immediate reaction is to call the police, but Paddy is vehement.  “No police….I can explain everything….But we need to get out of here now.”  And with each explanation/secret, the fissures between them widen.  Their marriage isn’t quite the perfect one the reader had been led to expect from the beginning of the novel.  The story is so skillfully told that you will be drawn in, step by step, until the very end.

You can read more about Catriona McPherson at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.







It’s 1926 in Edinburgh, Scotland, days before the General Strike of 1926. And the wealthy Balfour family is about to get a new lady’s maid.

Dandelion Dahlia Gilver, better known as Dandy, has been approached by Walburga Balfour, better known as Lollie, to protect her from her husband, Philip Balfour, better known as Pip. Pip has turned from the witty, kind man Lollie met at a tennis party to a man who has threatened on numerous occasions to kill her.  Without family or close friends, she has turned to private investigator Dandy for protection and hires her to serve as her maid.

When Dandy meets Pip that first night, she is surprised by his charm and seeming warmth toward his wife.  Dandy notes that his eyes are like a spaniel’s, and “It suddenly seemed very unlikely that a devil could have such brown spaniel eyes.”  But Lollie is convinced that her husband is, in her words, “a monster…beastly…pig.”  So Dandy gets a quick lesson from her own lady’s maid and joins the other eleven servants in the Balfour home (butler, cook, kitchen maid, scullery maid, tweenie, parlour maid, house maid, valet, footman, hall and boot boy, and chauffeur).

But when Dandy wakes the first morning after her arrival, she finds Pip Balfour dead, brutally stabbed in his own bed. And now Dandy’s position in the household is even more precarious; she must continue her role as a servant while trying to discover who the murderer is.  After she and the police inspector have determined that there was no way for an outsider to enter the premises, which were locked and bolted each night, suspicion is limited to the eleven servants, with or without an outside accomplice.  There certainly are enough possibilities, as nearly each of the servants tells of having been severely wronged by Pip.

One of the most fascinating chapters comes near the end, when Dandy and her partner Alec take the teenage hall boy to his home on his day off.  Ordinarily Mattie walks the nine miles each way, carrying a basket of goodies that the Balfour cook gives him, but as Dandy and Alec want to talk to him they give Mattie a ride.  Although Dandy understands that the village will not be like the pretty English places she is used to, she is appalled by a village “unlike any village I had ever seen:  no shops, no real streets, and no church spires nor inns nor schoolhouses–nothing except that three long straight rows (of houses) set down at the edge of the rough.”

Although kindhearted, Dandy has lived in her own comfortable world for so long that she has lost touch with the lives of many of her fellow citizens. Inside Mattie’s house Dandy makes two unthinking blunders–she goes to the sink to fill the tea kettle (no running water) and asks why the family hasn’t heard the news about Pip’s murder on the wireless (no such luxury as a wireless).  She thus begins to have a better understanding of why the General Strike was called by the country’s miners and why it spread to various other trade unions throughout the nation.

Catriona McPherson has written another excellent novel in the Dandy Gilver series. You can read more about her at her web site.