In the Crypt with a Candlestick
By Daisy Waugh Piatkus, 288pp, £16.99/$21.45
In Daisy Waugh’s new novel the Todes of Tode Hall are in crisis. The despised patriarch Sir Ecgbert, the 11th baronet, has finally shuffled off his mortal coil, leaving his younger wife, Emma, despairing as to which of her three hopeless children to leave in charge of the magisterial house while she swans off to her villa in Capri. The problem is, none of them is suitable: daughter Nicola, who lives in Edinburgh with her “gender non-specified lover, Bone” is too lefty; the son and rightful heir Mad Ecgbert is, well, mad; and spare son Esmé has taken himself off to Australia and has no intention of coming back.
Such an important building couldn’t possibly be sold off to an oligarch or – shudder – given to the National Trust.
As one ancestor puts it, “There’s no need for a house to be as large as this. Look at Chatsworth – perfectly large enough. A perfectly reasonable, manageable size. Whereas Tode Hall is silly.”
One of the problems with Tode Hall is that it doesn’t have a “medium-sized” dining room: of its three, two are “a disgusting squish” with any more than 20 guests, and one looks empty with anything less than 150. There are also “too many corridors”, tourists, “grockles and weirdies” peering in through the windows all day long and various health-and-safety disasters waiting to happen. One visitor sues after breaking their toe climbing into the fountain.
Hope seems to come when Lady Tode lands on her nephew, Egbert Tode, and his wife, India, currently residing in Wandsworth with a £375,000 “oak ’n’ chrome spaceship” of a kitchen and children called Ludo and Passion. The late Sir Ecgbert fell out with his younger brother when his nephew was given the traditional family name without the crucial “c”, and Egbert has consequently grown up without knowing his aunt or cousins, or ever visiting Tode Hall.
The young Todes are energetic, enthusiastic and dutiful, but clueless about running a large estate and despised by the long-serving staff, who remain in thrall to Tode Hall’s previous chatelaine. Emma Tode is universally adored: by her children, her employees and the local community. On top of which, she has subtly turned everyone against the new incumbents of the hall with a sly campaign of passive-aggression and smart put-downs.
Into this morass comes Alice Liddell, whose grandmother was a lady’s maid at Tode Hall in her youth. A pot-smoking, hippy-clothed mother of triplets, freshly decamped from her formerly bohemian but now rather grotty Clapham home, she is appointed “Fun Manager” by India. But on the day of Alice’s arrival, Lady Tode is found dead in the family mausoleum, surrounded by a pool of blood and clutching a candlestick and a key.
Waugh marries the best of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse in a joyous Cluedo-game of a novel, with props including the candlestick of the title, a vast pot of Crème de la Mer and a silver sugar pot with an irascible inhabitant. The book is sprinkled with in-jokes and literary allusions: a gamekeeper named Mellors, a great 20th-century novel called Prance to the Music in Time, and a character who wears a boater and carries a teddy bear (a reference to Waugh’s grandfather’s creation, Sebastian Flyte from Brideshead Revisited).
A hotchpotch cast of characters assembles at the hall, including a bossy ghost, a past-it actor, a sinister dog portraitist who looks like a rat, and Mad Ecgbert, the 12th baronet, who is continually taking minicabs from his “funny house” down the drive to heckle his cousin. Everyone suspects everyone else of being the killer, and they are all having affairs with one another, too. The chaos results in some madcap set-piece scenes, such as when India gets steaming drunk at a dinner with the vicar and his wife, or the excruciating “mega-meeting” with estate staff.
In the Crypt with a Candlestick is part cosy murder mystery, part country house saga and part love story. It would make a fabulous film in a comic Gosford Park vein: a big house, a suspicious death, an oleaginous butler and a huge array of eccentric characters all screaming for the big screen treatment. Quite literally, in fact: one of India’s ideas for the house’s regeneration is to turn it into a film location, and to this end she organises a weekend house party with lots of media types. Cue flirting, drug-taking and japes that caper along to the story’s exuberant conclusion. One imagines that Waugh had nearly as much fun writing it as we do reading it.
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