Turning the page the reader is immediately plunged into Abigail's world as she tries to flee Graeve Hall through the freezing streets of London, she does not make it and is returned to the house to face the wrath of it's housekeeper, Mrs Cotton. As Abigail's story progresses it becomes clear that Mrs Cotton's power within the house is increasing as the health of it's master, Lord Greave, fails.
But the staff are playing with Mrs Cotton, who believes that the ghost of her dead sister, Lady Greave is haunting her. She invites a medium, all the rage in Victorian times, to try to contact her sister. Abigail hears everything as she is concealed behind a screen to obtain information for the staff. What she hears causes Abigail to try discover who murdered her mother, a servant at Greave Hall before her death, and who her real father is.
This is a fast and well paced murder come ghost story. Michael Ford has obviously researched the period well and that research is incorporated into the novel seamlessly, giving small insights into the lives of the Victorians, probably without the reader even noticing:
'I spread damp tea leaves on the floor, then brushed them across the carpet to fetch up the dust.'
All of the characters are well drawn, the grades of servant and their relationships with each other are believable and do not feel strained. Ford has managed to make each character an individual within their specific servant class and job title, from Cook (who likes a little tipple), Rob the footman to Adam the coal boy
" 'That'll be the coal man,' said Rob. 'Tell him we only need a couple of sackfuls to keep us to Monday. And mind he doesn't wipe his hands on the door frame.'
Adam was waiting outside, hopping from foot to foot,with his hands in his armpits. His face was almost black from coal dust, which made his eyes seem to glow white.....Both Adam's parents were dead too, and he'd been plucked from the workhouse by a coal higgler and grocer with the unfortunate name of Crook, to help him on his errands. behind him in the lane was the coal cart and Archer the carthorse, head bowed in his nosebag.
'Morning Adam,' I said.
'Bloody freezing!' said Adam, looking past me longingly. 'What's it like in the lap o'luxury, hey?'
'Well,' I replied, putting on a posh voice, 'the caviar jelly we had last night was ruined by the presentation. You know I can't eat except off a gold-plated spoon.' "
The consequences of transgression are also highlighted in the sub plot of Lizzy, Abigail's friend and fellow maid, who is banished from the house despite having no family and nowhere to go following an unplanned pregnancy.
As Abigail delves deeper into her mothers death and Mrs Cotton's spite becomes more dangerous the various elements of suspense, the sense of menace emanating from Mrs Cotton, Abigail's investigation, the other servant's disbelief in her theory and the use of the Ouija board by Abigail to try to find out what really happened are handled well.
I have to admit to being able to guess the end but I am not the book's intended audience.
I suspect that this novel will have the 9 - 11 year olds, both boys and girls, hooked right from the first page.
My thanks to Bloomsbury for supplying me with an uncorrected proof copy of the book for review, as a result some of the quotes above may alter slightly in final publication.
'The Poisoned House' is published on 2nd August.