Review by Ellen Wallace
Crime often mingles with the well-to-do. The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess and a Family Secret by Catherine Bailey is a story of pride, valor, ciphers and deceit in a British family of nobility during the years surrounding World War I.
The setting is the majestic Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire owned by one of the richest men in Britain — John Henry Montagu Manners (1886-1940), the 9th Duke of Rutland. The book begins with his death and how he spent his last hours — destroying family letters to protect his reputation for history.
What would possess an English Duke to face his death holed up in a windowless room full of family records and letters? What would haunt him so much that he wanted to alter the record of his life and that of his family?
Historian and author Catherine Bailey’s original intent for gaining access to the archives which had been sealed since the Duke’s death in 1940 and kept in a series of rooms wedged into the servants quarters at Belvoir was an idea for a book she wanted to write chronicling the humble soldiers who volunteered for service in World War I from the villages encompassed by the holdings of the 8th Duke of Rutland. Of the men who went to war from the estate, 249 did not return.
While digging through the fastidiously kept records, Bailey uncovers a crime which the 9th Duke of Rutland tried unsuccessfully to blot from the records.
The story has complex subplots (as most wealthy families mange to create) mingling the mysterious death of the first born son, the rightful heir; a mother who sends her surviving son away from home immediately after his brother’s death; and the affect of her actions on her son in adulthood.
The book is not cops and robbers true crime, but rather a look at how the rich are different and their crimes more subtle but all the same crimes.
Bailey’s writing style is that of a measured historian whose excitement grows as she realizes what she’s uncovered and takes readers along in the labyrinth of clues buried in dusty boxes to find out what the Duke was hiding. Bailey also provides delicious details of how the very wealthy lived in the years just prior to World War I up through the 1940s.
The unfolding plot and the author’s effort to unravel the mystery buried in the Duke’s private rooms keep you engaged and wanting more with each subsequent page. The Secret Rooms is glimpse back in time and into the eternal struggle of duty to one’s country verses duty to one’s family.
Published by Penguin Books.