Fatal Inheritance

Written by Catherine Shaw
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

London, 1900. Detective Vanessa Weatherburn has a new and baffling case. The young violinist, Sebastian Cavendish, has committed suicide, leaving a grieving mother and a distraught fiancée. Nobody who knew him can understand why such a talented, extroverted and charismatic young man, on the threshold of a dazzling musical career, should have taken his own life. Vanessa, ex-tutor to one of Sebastian’s close friends, means to find out. All she has to go on is his enigmatic last note to his fiancée. Her search for the truth will take her across Europe, following Sebastian’s last days, and into some obscure places illuminating several late Victorian obsessions: the importance of heredity and how it might influence the nation’s health; Dr Freud’s latest theories; and a revealing meeting at the Society for Psychical Research. As the threads begin to unravel, Vanessa edges closer to the long-kept secrets of a brilliant but tormented family – secrets somebody is determined to keep, no matter what the cost.

I enjoyed this. The research is historically impeccable and never resorts to ‘info dumps’. Concerns of the period, e.g., the dubious ‘science’ of eugenics, and the proper sphere for women, come in quite naturally and, indeed, prove to be essential to unravelling the mystery. Shaw creates an authentic 1900s world where class is important and where certain things, especially to do with sex, are swept under the carpet as a matter of course. I particularly enjoyed the glimpse into the Darwins’ family life in Cambridge – echoes of Gwen Raverat’s (née Darwin) delightful autobiography, Period Piece. Vanessa herself is a New Woman. A feminist without being strident; she observes the proprieties where she has to but isn’t afraid to ignore them when the occasion demands. The twists and turns of the plot kept me engrossed until the very end. Recommended.