Fans of mystery author Claire Douglas expect complex plots with many twists, and her latest murder mystery, “The Couple at Number 9,” generously exceeds our expectations. Even the title, referencing the “couple” who live at Number 9 on the street with the creepy name, Skelton Place, in the picturesque Cotswold town of Beggar’s Nook, isn’t completely straightforward. There are, in actuality, two couples to whom this might refer.
The story is told from several points of view. Saffron Cutler, who is called Saffy, has moved into the titular address, a cute but very tiny cottage, with her boyfriend Tom. They are expecting a baby, which was an accident but welcome nonetheless. They are both young but very much in love and determined to give their child a beautiful home and lots of love. Saffy’s grandmother surprised Saffy and her mother Lorna when she told them about the existence of this cottage, which she had rented out for decades. But now that Saffy and Tom are expanding the cottage, the excavation has revealed two bodies, bodies which have been buried behind the cottage from the time period when her grandmother, Rose Grey, lived there.
Unfortunately, Rose is in a nursing home and suffering from dementia. She is often not lucid. Saffy adores her grandmother, who cared for her most summers of her childhood when Saffy’s mother, who gave birth to Saffy when she was only 16, was off doing things that a young person wants to do. Lorna has never felt especially close to Rose, her mother, and she felt her mother was stifling and overly protective, so Lorna became wilder and more adventurous. Now Lorna lives in Spain with the latest in a line of younger, handsome men. She and Saffy’s father had an amicable divorce after several years of teenage marriage.
We also hear from Rose herself through a series of letters, the origin of which becomes clear before the end of the novel. Then there is Theo, whose narrative doesn’t seem to fit in, but we know that somehow, his story will connect with that of the women: Grandmother Rose, her daughter Lorna, and granddaughter Saffy. Theo is a disappointment to his wealthy but emotionally bankrupt father. He still misses his mother, who had fallen to her death fourteen years previously. His childhood reminiscences include his father berating his mother and seeing his mother with bruises. He still has a relationship with his father because he believes it’s what his mother would have wanted, but we can see his father is entirely unlovable and irredeemable.
The different narratives are all clearly labeled with the name of the character from whose point of view we will be reading, and we’re also provided with the month and year. The narratives take place in 2018 and in 1980. Douglas carefully draws us into the story and delicately drops dollops of information until we understand the motivations behind Rose’s anxiety in 1980, the strange man appearing to threaten Lorna and Saffy, and the identity of the bodies.
As Saffy and Lorna work feverishly to uncover the clues, we also are privy to the strain in their relationship. But what we realize through the trials and tribulations of the characters is the strength of a mother’s love, and as Saffy and Lorna work on their relationship, both Lorna and Saffy come to finally realize how very much their mothers love them.
What Douglas has done in this novel is create a mystery that reaches in many directions, with many false paths and red herrings, but which is concluded in a way that satisfies our curiosity about not just whom the two bodies belong to and who killed them, but the emotional tangles that the characters deal with. The book is gripping from the start. There is also the added perk of getting to visit the Cotswolds, even vicariously, which is a treat. While the twists are not completely unexpected by the time we read them, what we end up with is far from what we expected at the onset of the story. “The Couple at Number 9” is beautifully conceived and executed and a pleasure to read.
Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by Harper Collins, the publisher, for review purposes.