- The Vanished Bride, by Bella Ellis. Hodder and Stoughton. $32.99.
Best-selling author, Rowan Coleman admits to "a life-long love affair" with the Bronte sisters, since she visited the Parsonage in Haworth with her mother when she was ten years old.
To Coleman, the Brontes were women who "fought for their rights to have lives as rich and notable as their male counterparts, refusing to believe that their gender consigned them or their talent to a polite and quiet existence".
Coleman under the pseudonym of Bella Ellis, imagines the sisters using their formidable brains to solve crimes. The Vanished Bride is the first in a series featuring the Brontes as "lady detectors".
In a retrospective prologue in 1851, after the deaths of all her siblings, Charlotte remembers "the adventures they had forged together, the dangers they had faced, the shocking revelations they had uncovered and the secrets they had kept". She resolves to put pen to paper, to tell the story of The Vanished Bride and of 1845, the year all the Bronte siblings lived at home, as Branwell had been dismissed from his position at Thorp Grange after a sexual encounter with his employer's wife.
Branwell brings home the news of a "most terrible and bloody murder" at Chester Grange only a few miles from Haworth. Elizabeth Chester, the second wife of Robert Chester is missing, feared dead, when her bedroom is discovered soaked in blood.
Charlotte remembers that a friend from school, Mathilda ( Mattie) French is the governess at Chester Grange and the sisters decide to visit, console Mattie and perhaps "discern the truth of what happened to Elizabeth Chester".
They discover from Mattie that Robert Chester, although charming on the surface, is a cruel monster who regularly abuses his wife both physically and mentally. His violence is believed to have caused his first wife to take her own life by leaping from the ramparts.
He is an obvious suspect but then there are gypsies in the nearby woods and Elizabeth has been seen there embracing a man who was not her husband.
The sisters are intrepid "detectors" combining Charlotte's passion and drive, Emily's free spirit and disregard for convention, and Anne's courage to speak out for women in a world where "men might beat their wives . . . might even kill them and go unpunished". Their interaction is one of the many pleasures of the novel, revealing their devotion to, and exasperation with, each other. Chester Grange is suitably gothic with hidden passage-ways, secret messages and a ghost, as Ellis skillfully references familiar elements of the Bronte novels to come.
In her author's note, Ellis says The Vanished Bride "is a novel written with fondness, warmth and appreciation for three legendary and revolutionary authors that have had a lasing impact on my life...And I hope, it's a pretty good yarn too". Believe me, dear reader, it is.