The House at Riverton (2007; Pan Books)
The Forgotten Garden (2008; Pan Books)
The Distant Hours (2010; Atria)
Kate Morton

Kate Morton hails from Australia, but all of her books are set in England. I don’t know if she has visited England, but her books have a remarkable sense of “place.” And her three books bear other remarkable similarities to each other:

  • a mysterious estate or castle in England filled with dark family secrets 
  • aging family members who’ve held those secrets close 
  • modern (ca. 1990s) heroine who finds tangible evidence of said secrets (like, a letter) 
  • the awareness on the part of modern heroine that her own mother is somehow intimately connected with the mysterious castle and its strange inhabitants
  • the revelation of said secrets through sleuthing by the modern heroine
  • the gradual understanding of her own mother and family through the knowledge gained
  • said secrets encompassing multiple issues: emotional love affairs and/or murder and/or suicide and/or betrayal and/or madness in the family…
  • and an intricate plot slowly unraveled through jumping back and forth in time and between various narrators

Gothic in inspiration, full of references to book lovers and the profound impact even a single book can have on someone if it is read at the right impressionable age, and the overwhelming sense of place (and the effect that place has on its inhabitants and visitors) round out Morton’s writing, making these novels some of my favorites for a long day of reading-on-the-couch-curled-up-under-a-blanket-and-sipping-tea. Once I get about halfway through one of these hefty tomes (think: 500 pages +/-), I cannot put the book down. I love me some good mystery. The reader gradually figures out what is going on before the big reveal(s), but, as I said in my goodreads review of The Forgotten Garden, “In my experience, a misty castle in the distance that gradually grows clearer and clearer as more details are ascertained never spoils a pleasant journey.”
 I must confess that I don’t enjoy the actual secrets that are revealed too much because they’re often depressing, sordid, or just plain wrong–but the journey there is addictive. I like that Morton’s books are pretty clean in the sense of anything being described explicitly, little foul language, and the like; but the dark family secrets involve some messy “stuff.”

Is it possible to write a gripping mystery and dark Gothic novel without having the main historical characters be so disturbing? I know I haven’t actually *read* Jane Eyre, but I know that’s a good example of having dark secrets (and even a mad woman!). Hmm…. worth pondering.

For now, I space these kinds of books out in my reading…too much rich chocolate cake isn’t good for me :-).