The Little Stranger
By Sarah Waters
McClelland and Stewart Pub
Here is a rambling mystery set in England just after the First World War. The action all takes place on the estate of Colonel and Mrs Ayres; vast acres known as “Hundreds.”
Dr. Faraday is the narrator for the tale and his rather methodical way of explaining every detail, even when it does him no credit, gives the story an old fashioned tone.
Dr. Faraday visits “Hundreds” for the first time as a 10-year-old boy. The time is 1919 and the young, handsome Ayres family (they have a small daughter of six years) have thrown a fete on their grounds and passed out medals to the young Boy Scouts. Young Faraday is smitten by the mansion, and is allowed a secret trip into the grand place because his mother had once been in service there and still had friends among the staff. The once in a lifetime visit for a poor boy is a great treat and a memory dear to his heart.
The following year the Ayres family lost their six-year-old to diphtheria. Though they had other children born to them, a boy Roderick, and a girl Caroline, they lived a less public life .
Young Faraday is a smart lad who graduated from Medical School and became a Doctor. His mother had died when he was 15, his father barely survived his graduation. So he is alone in the world.
The story picks up thirty years later when Dr Faraday is called out to “Hundreds” to care for the one servant now employed there. Betty is a young girl who finds the old house creepy, with its long dark passages; she is more frightened than sick. So Dr Faraday at last meets the members of the Ayres family. Mrs Ayres is still in residence, as are Roderick and Caroline.
Roderick had been in the RAF and had suffered injuries. He is also suffering great stress in his attempt to keep the estate going with little money. Caroline is personable, though not a beauty. Her main company is her dog Gyp an old Labrador Retriever.
Dr. Faraday tip toes his way through all the details of this story. The decrepit, once glorious house, the family of good breeding, who live in a few rooms with candle light and little heat. The expectation placed on the son, to run the estate and keep up appearances, with no hope of success. The unlovely daughter with no marriage prospects, and of course the young housemaid, who is convinced “there is something queer in the house.“
Queer indeed with the horrible loss of old Gyp, an unexplained fire, family members collapsing mentally and a narrator who fancies both the house and the daughter of the house.
Dr. Faraday consults with his medical community who deal only in science and nothing metaphysical.
Yet the question must be asked; must the whole family be destroyed to satisfy that “queer thing in the house.”
Peggy Freeman is a local freelance writer.