Sometimes, we read a murder mystery, and almost from the start, we feel as if we know who did it. Don’t worry. “Just Like the Other Girls” by Claire Douglas is not like that. Douglas does present us with several red herrings, and a few seem as though they just must be the real killer. But then she reveals more and more about the characters’ backgrounds and motivations, and boom—what we thought we knew is wrong.
The setting is a lovely Georgian mansion in a posh area of Bristol called Clifton, where the river meanders across the street from the house, and there is a suspension bridge close by. The house is beautifully finished, decorated in a staid, traditional manner. There are no personal touches to be seen, no family pictures, no vacation mementos, nothing to distinguish the house from an impersonal hotel. At least that’s what the succession of companions who have been hired to keep Elspeth McKenzie company all think. Well, we don’t know exactly what all of them think because the first two have died. Or rather, been killed. We don’t know exactly how they died either, because the official story is that while Matilde was killed by a hit-and-run driver, Jemima left on her own and just disappeared.
We hear from Una as she decides to accept employment with Mrs. McKenzie, and we learn from her, in first person narrative, how strange everyone in the house is. Mrs. McKenzie might be almost 80 years old, but she’s spry and able to care of herself. Yet she pretends to be frail as she clings to Una’s arm when they move around. Strangely, she sits and pretends to read a book for hours while Una must sit with her. And because she frowns on Una’s choice of reading material, Agatha Christie, Una just sits with nothing to do. It’s not a pleasant job, but it pays well, and Una is saving to fulfill her late mother’s wish that she travel.
Kathryn is Mrs. McKenzie’s daughter and another strange character. She’s uptight and dislikes her mother’s companions intensely. Gradually, we come to see why that almost fervent hatred exists. We know that her childhood was not a wonderful one, but in the beginning, we don’t know why. Her story is told from her point of view in third person narrative. And there is yet another narrative interspersed with the other two—a short, one-page, first person narrative speaking directly to the victims-to-be and telling them why they will be the next to die. We don’t know who is speaking, but Douglas provides us with plenty of options. We also don’t know why all of the companions whom Elspeth hires look the same: delicate and blond with light eyes. We do know that Una’s suspicions grow that someone is following her at night and that she’s being watched.
Douglas brilliantly creates an atmosphere of suspense in that huge home and on that street with its view of the suspension bridge. She lets us know up front that someone was in danger on that very bridge, so as we read the mystery, we can’t help but view the bridge as sinister rather than just a lovely bridge with a picturesque view of the river. She also provides many suspicious characters, some more suspicious than others. Is it the gardener? The ex-boyfriend? The daughter? Elspeth herself? Most of the inhabitants of the house, aptly called The Cuckoo House, are not pleasant people. They have their secrets and their inhibitions, their prejudices and their hidden desires.
As the truth unfolds towards the end of the novel, we revise our suspicions and then revise them again as we learn how our choice of suspect is in the clear. If you are looking for a marvelous mystery to kick-start your new year, this fine novel is a great choice.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Harper Paperbacks, the publisher, for review purposes.