THE DEATH CHAMBER - Sarah Rayne
THE DEATH CHAMBER is an usual novel from an author that specialises in unusual stories. Weaving two different pasts into the present, THE DEATH CHAMBER is a strange and eerie interweaving of a place with a dark history and it's effects on a series of families - in themselves more interwoven than current day members will ever realise.
Georgina Grey didn't really even know that Calvary existed when she receives a very odd letter about the Caradoc Society and a bequest her great-grandfather had left them (and subsequently her) many years before. Circumstances in her own life mean that she is free to head to the village of Thornbeck and find out more about her own family history - and Calvary - the goal where executions were still taking place in the earlier part of the 20th century.
The story from there gets complicated and it's hard to discuss elements without giving away a lot of where the plot heads, but interestingly this is a story about a set of people who are interwoven with Calvary - both as prisoners and staff - and in a strange, almost too co-incidental manner - then and now - these people and their descendants remain interwoven with each other, with Calvary and with the Caradoc society.
The book moves between 3 timeframes - the current with Georgina learning about her family and her involvement with Dr Ingram's team, and the winding up of the now bankrupt Caradoc Society. The earliest setting is when Sir Lewis Caradoc is the governor of Calvary, at the time of a high profile execution of an Irish Traitor. The third timeframe is as Sir Lewis is still around, but not the day to day governor of Calvary; there is a new doctor at the goal (Georgina's great-grandfather Nicholas Kane), and there are again, a series of high profile executions - a notorious serial killer of women and later on his female accomplice is also held prior to her scheduled execution.
The book weaves its way forward telling events around Sir Lewis, around Nicholas Kane, around Georgina Grey. The reasons behind the establishment of the Caradoc Society - the obsessions that led to a belief in the supernatural are bubbling along under the narrative, but ultimately, a lot of the story is simply about manipulation, denial and sheer self-interest. Because of this complicated storyline the book does seem to move slowly at times, that's part of the attraction and the distraction of it - Rayne is weaving an entire world around Calvary which, on one hand, beggars belief that all these connections would be possible and would carry forward over the generations - but then again 1930 is not that long ago, and small villages and communities can often result in complicated connections. There is also, at the end, a fairly hefty dose of romantic intrigue that well - is either touching or vaguely nauseating depending upon your preference.
Rayne seems to specialise in these low key, atmospheric, slightly off-beat partial historical / partial current day stories. The books aren't the fasting moving reads in the world, but they definitely are immensely involving and there's always an ever so slightly creepy element which makes them very entertaining.
Calvary Gaol, standing bleak and forbidding on the Cumbrian hillside, exerts a curious hold over Georgina Grey. For her family's history is closely bound up in its dark and terrible past. It's there that her great-grandfather worked as a prison doctor in the 1930s; where his involvement in a bizarre experiment would change the course of his life forever. TV presenter Chad Ingram is fascinated by Calvary too. For he plans to conduct a new experiment in the now-disused gaol - an experiment that will take place in the brooding desolation of the old execution chamber. Chad's experiment and Georgina's curiosity will have horrifying consequences. For someone has their own reasons for suppressing the shocking truth about Calvary. Someone who will go to any lengths to ensure the past remains buried . . .