Dead Letters

Written by Caite Dolan-Leach

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

Dead Letters
RRP: £12.99 / £3.79
Released: May 04, 2017
PBK & eBook

A family vineyard in upstate New York: there is a suggestion of halcyon rural summers and cosy winters, but this is a crime novel and there are worms in the bud. These grapes produce inferior wines, the enterprise is in debt, and the family is so dysfunctional its members are not all there, metaphorically or literally.

Both Antipova parents are alcoholic but while Marlon is a charming fox who has abandoned his family to  grow grapes  in California,  he left his wife, Nadine, to go quietly   mad in the family home in the company of their twin daughters and an endless supply of drink.

When their father deserted them the girls were in their late teens:  beautiful and precocious, Zelda careless and flamboyant, Ava prim and responsible. After his departure they managed to keep the business going, with Nadine lucid enough to be deemed eccentric rather than crazy, and the girls so absorbed in their own concerns that they were blissfully unaware of their mother’s deterioration and too accustomed to their parents’ alcoholism to care.  Ava was engaged in an intense but unconsummated affair with a neighbouring boy, and life was lurching along just under control until Ava came home one time to find her fellow in bed with her sister.

Treachery on the part of two people whom she loved was unendurable. Ava fled to Paris. Two years later (when the book opens) she is attending University and has an attentive, cultured Parisian lover, but all the time she’s receiving guilt-ridden letters from her twin begging for reconciliation. She refuses to respond. Then she gets an angry drunken email from her mother saying that Zelda has died in a fire.

The fire was in a barn where Zelda held boisterous parties, and human remains had been found in the ashes. When Forensics reveal that the doors had been chained shut on the outside the initial rumour of accident shifts to the likelihood of murder. There is an omission in the plot here which is not apparent until the end. The forgiving reader will let it go, happy enough to have found the flaw that demonstrates no book is perfect. For, like Ava, one is diverted, refocussed, as she starts to receive emails from Zelda.

Gears change, or rather we are in a different vehicle. Zelda isn’t dead but playing a game. Successive emails drop clues, from A to Z. They start with Ava and will end with Zelda – and presumably the solution to the puzzle. But why play a game in the first place?  Even more mystifying is that, following the letter clues, Ava discovers how deeply the family is in debt. So  there is a horrifying aspect to this game: if Zelda is alive, who died in the fire? Who chained shut the doors of the barn? If this is an insurance scam the implications are terrifying.

Meanwhile Ava is no longer alone with her mother at the homestead. Wyatt, the erstwhile boy friend, returns and there is some kind of reconciliation. Marlon arrives from California, followed by his mother, Opal, a rich old tyrant from Florida: two more dependents, two more alcoholics to be succoured by Ava, the reluctant earth mother.

The emails and the clues continue, even notes delivered by hand, all pointing not only to the writer’s eerie awareness of Ava’s immediate  actions but to Zelda’s  physical proximity. Her lovers emerge from the woodwork, along with their aggrieved kith and kin. The twists are serpentine. And as you find yourself thinking that this is an absorbing mainstream family novel: an appallingly disorientated family, but still a domestic saga, you are pulled up short by those remains in the ashes of the barn. Now there is an overwhelming compulsion to discover the killer. Involvement is absolute.

A stylish clever debut and a joy to read.

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