The House on Fripp Island

Written by Rebecca Kauffman

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.

The House on Fripp Island
Serpent's Tail
RRP: £12.99
Released: June 04, 2020

We open with the ghost of a drowned person telling us what haunting is about, and how it feels to drown, simply pointing out that because there was a powerful rip tide there had been no reason for people to suspect that the coroner’s verdict of Death by Accidental Drowning was wrong.

Bearing the hint of murder in mind we hark back two decades to a summer’s day and two families arriving to share a holiday in a rented house on an island off the coast of South Carolina. The parents know each other but the children are strangers. However, they fraternise, in the main careful and polite, observing the rules of middle class America, secure in the ambience formed by the close friendship between the mothers, Poppy and Lisa.

Basically the families are divided by money. The parents all started similarly but Scott went into law and is comfortably off while John works for an interior decorator, has a bad back and is deeply in debt to his hospital. Their families live accordingly, extravagant or thrifty, but Scott and Lisa’s marriage is rocky, their two daughters confused, spoiled or sullen. In contrast John and Poppy’s boy, Ryan, at 18 is a passionate ecologist and comfortable in his skin while his young sister Alix sports a buzz cut and, at 11, resembles a precocious boy, behaviour regarded with tolerance by the family but viewed with varied degrees of suspicion by others.

The interaction of the families is fascinating; on the face of it so conventional you can smell the barbecue. Meals are shared, everyone bathes in the safe shallow water (not much swimming as such; with one exception these are not great swimmers). There’s a lot of sunbathing (layers of sunscreen) and people walk the nature trails. John and Scott play golf, the mothers share confidences.

It emerges that Lisa, obsessed with the vulnerability of her girls, has consulted the register of sex offenders and found that there is one living on the island. The perceived threat comes at a bad moment when she was already stressed by the conviction that Scott is having an affair. She confides in Poppy who is deeply concerned.

After a few days the veneer starts to sport cracks. The suspected paedophile – an attractive young plumber – approaches Lisa’s older girl on the beach, while Scott is obviously in some deep secret trouble. Suspense accelerates and all the hidden secrets start to surface. The precious domesticity had been no more than a crust over molten lava and in the last storm-racked night on the island the volcano blows its top.

There is a long and almost gentle aftermath. From the start we knew that someone would be killed, the trick is to guess who shall be the victim and who the perpetrator. The climax is the inevitable outcome of the events as they have been so artfully recorded.  The denouement is a reasonable and reasoned conversation between two people twenty years later, skirting delicately round the coroner’s verdict, gauging the power of a rip tide and questioning how much a drowning person is aware. These are the last questions left and it’s the ghost who answers them.

Under the guise of a skilful domestic whodunnit Rebecca Kauffman has produced a disturbing novel for our times.

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