The confession is split into sections and a chapter built around each section so readers can see the back story to the confession and draw their own conclusions to what happened as the story unfolds. It’s set in Broadstairs, Kent in 1850 and the writer of the confession is Delphine Beck (although readers later learn that’s not her real name). Delphine has come to Broadstairs to paint and escape attention after leaving New York, where she was born and grew up, in mysterious circumstances. She has travelled with her sister Julia. Locals are suspicious of the widow, thinking her unconventional ways – walking about the town without a companion and painting – will bring bad luck and some look at her suspiciously when the body of a girl washes up on the beach. Delphine and Julia are not the only strangers in town though. The vicar, Theo Hallam, has a guest, Edmund Steele who later meets his aunt at the local hotel. She befriends two ladies, an aunt and a niece and their circle is joined by Mr Benedict, another painter, who is in Broadstairs to indulgence his artistic temperament, temporarily away from his wife and children, as much as paint. The group come together for excursions, beach walks and picnics, visits to almshouses and other local attractions. Delphine watches Mr Benedict’s efforts to separate aunt and niece and assumes he has designs on the niece, whom she gently tries to warn. The niece reveals she is adopted and has to look to marriage to secure her future. She is worldly enough to know there’s no future in Mr Benedict’s efforts, which are not aimed at the extramarital affair that everyone assumes. Delphine also watches a gentle romance develop between Julia and Edmund Steele which she fears will result in her having to reveal her own secrets. She also puzzles over Theo Hallam’s reaction to her which seems to veer between hatred and tenderness with no apparent cause.
The local doctor and police are content to write the girl’s death off as accidental drowning. To other otherwise would mean spending scarce resources or funding an investigation from their own pockets. Even two further deaths fail to provoke a reaction: the bodies of a couple were found in a chalk pit and it’s assumed they fell in after drinking too much at a nearby tavern. Without the resources to investigate or families to demand action, it’s down to the group of visitors and vicar to try and uncover the truth, limited by the lack of forensic data available and the reluctance from townsfolk to talk about the deaths.
From Delphine’s confession, readers learn she’s been disowned by her family by an act of teenage rebellion which brought unintentional disgrace on her. This led her to travel to England with her sister – also disowned – to forge a new life and new identity. So far the pair have been careful not to forge friendships or set down roots in any of the places they’ve visited. When Mr Benedict discovers Delphine’s true name via an art dealer with a loose tongue, Delphine makes plans to move to London. A move that might be scuppered by Julia’s desires for Edmund Steele.
Mr Steele’s visit to Broadstairs isn’t entirely one of a tourist either. He and Theo Hallam have a mutual friend who is concerned about Theo’s wellbeing and had asked Edmund to spend time in Broadstairs to check on Theo. The vicar had previously been on a mission to Africa and is trying to conceal his guilt over a chain of events he set in motion before returning to England. Although not his fault, he carries the burden of a woman’s accidental death and has convinced himself that he is not worthy of another woman’s love. A problem that has parallels with Delphine’s secrets.
A third potential victim is rescued and the group’s attention turns back to the serial killer in their midst. The killer’s motives are very much in keeping with the social constraints and values of the period, making the historical setting justified. Similarly, Delphine’s and Theo’s secrets are very much of their time and their issues have echoes in the killer’s motives.
“The Widow’s Confession” is very much from Delphine’s viewpoint as she struggles to make sense of her situation and reflects on the situations of the group she finds herself in. She knows she cannot go back to her life with her family in New York but has to make sense of the past before she can live in her present. Fortunately she is an empathetic character, practical, down to earth and as observant as you would expect an artist to be. It is also easy to warm to Edmund Steele, the sensible friend, and Theo Hallam, a man struggling with his own past and desire to be helpful to his parishioners. Julia, the niece and her aunt seem to be hiding secrets under a veneer of manners and expected behaviour. The confession enhances the story behind the murders and the two are credibly woven together so both are integral to the story.
Overall “The Widow’s Confession” is engaging with both the historical and thriller elements carefully sown together.
Next week, there will be a guest post from author Sophia Tobin discussing why she set this novel in Broadstairs and the challenges involved in writing about a place that has a direct personal connection.