Unnatural Ends - Book Review
by Christopher Huang
July 5, 2022
Mystery / Historical Fiction
I received this novel as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.
As much a murder mystery as a 1920's historical fiction, Unnatural Ends is an interesting look at family, identity, and betrayal.
Sir Lawrence Linwood is dead. More accurately, he was murdered—savagely beaten to death in his own study with a medieval
mace. The murder calls home his three adopted children: Alan, an archeologist; Roger, an engineer; and Caroline, a journalist. But his heirs soon find that his last testament contains a strange proviso—that his estate shall go to the heir who solves his murder.
To secure their future, each Linwood heir must now dig into the past. As their suspicion mounts—of each other and of peculiar strangers in the churchless town of Linwood Hollow—they come to suspect that the perpetrator lurks in the mysterious origins of their own birth.
The novel has a lot of great things going for it. The first is the point of view. It’s third person limited but follows three characters - the siblings - primarily, but with a few chapters following a few others. This really broadened the mystery aspect because you were able to see the threads of the story from different angles. It was fun to watch the revelations one person discovers line up with another deciphered by a different sibling. A great deal of this novel also focuses on identity - the siblings, as you find out from the first page, are all adopted and have no idea who their parents are or their ancestry. As such, part of the mystery turns into not just who murdered their father but who their parents were. I really loved how diverse the cast was. Normally books written in this period have everyone being white, which just wasn’t true. But while race and culture are a small aspect of the mystery in relation to the parentage of the siblings, it’s not a book about race. It’s normalized and quite refreshing for a book set in the 20s. Normally when I read books written in the 20s, I have to suffer through stereotypes if there are any people of colour, so it was great to read a book that felt like it was written back then but without the problematic elements.
The writing is lovely. It’s drawn out yet purposeful, full of strong descriptions and good dialogue. There isn’t any humour, romance, or action, but it’s easy to read while retaining an old-world feel.
Unfortunately, the characters were where the novel fell a little flat for me. They were likeable enough, but I didn’t love any of them. They are consistent, but I never latched on to any of them as a favourite character, and none were overly memorable. This could be because their father, despite being dead, was such an overbearing presence (due to flashbacks and their conversations about him). I think I also felt they were a little flat because while they suffer quite horribly in their lives, none of them seemed worse for wear psychologically. They all have memories, but none of them really wrestle with them.
In truth, it was the setting that kept me reading. I love old manor houses in the countryside, as well as the Interim war period in general, so I loved the attention to detail in these facets. It’s evident this is a well-researched book, and the author was very thorough. The focus on the aftermath of WWI, the gradual ousting of the rich landed gentry from their manors (check out Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day for a great one on that), the technological boom that always follows war, and the social changes. It felt authentic, and I very much enjoyed that aspect.
Now, I will say the result of the mystery isn’t very surprising. While it’s not like I “figured it out” right away, there are hints pretty much on the first page as to the mystery’s solution, so what did end up being the twist was always in the back of my mind as the most plausible option. I couldn’t figure out how to get there given the information I knew, so it was still an enjoyable mystery to see come together, but my reaction was more like “nailed it” than “ah ha!”
But figuring out plot twists too early is my mutant power. Overall, if you love the 1920s and mystery, you will likely enjoy this book.