Former MasterChef winner Sue Lawrence has 18 cookbooks to her name, but has in recent years branched out into historical thrillers, with Down To The Sea her third title. Set in Edinburgh’s Newhaven, and moving between the 1980s and 1880s, it opens with Rona and Craig taking possession of Wardie House, an imposing Victorian edifice they intend to turn into a luxurious care home – though they’ll need to do something about the chilly cellar and spooky attic first. Meanwhile, in 1898, Jessie Mack is also making a fresh start, journeying from the fishermen’s cottages of Newhaven to a great stone house up the hill. It’s a ten-minute walk but it takes her into a new world – and not a pleasant one; Wardie House is in this period a poorhouse, where the teenager has been dispatched after being blamed for the deaths of ten men and boys at sea, including her own father and brother. The fishwives say she’s cursed.
As Jessie settles into the rhythm of poorhouse life and Rona and Craig edge towards the opening of the care home, there are hints of secrets in many quarters – and then both women are woken in the night by a strange creaking noise. Each discovers that it’s the squeak of an old pram being rocked by someone dealing with painful memories, which then ripple out into the wider narrative.
In the early part of the book, Lawrence’s writing is a little fussy, but as the chapters progress it smooths out, and while some of her foreshadowing hints are a little obvious, she handles the twin narratives well, building the tension in each while adding some smart twists along the way.
Lawrence is, as you would expect, particularly strong in her descriptions of food and scents, evoking the tang of the sea and the stink of fish that makes Jessie homesick, and draws sharp contrasts between the meagre rations of the poorhouse inmates – all thin kale soup and coarse porridge – and the Matron and Governor’s bountiful meals. She also uses Edinburgh’s haar – those blanketing fogs rolling in from the sea – as an opportunity to chill the bones literally and metaphorically; you can almost feel the damp clamminess of its tendrils coming off the page.
Her cast of characters, most of them women, are all distinct individuals, from the young but wise cook Molly and the tender-hearted but practical Jessie in the 1880s to hardworking Rona and mysterious Martha in the 1980s, although a little more detail would have given us a fuller picture of the lives of women in the two eras. And while the passages about the fisherlassies are evocative, a longer flashback to Jessie’s life before the poorhouse, and in particular to the storm in which her father and brother died, would have given her greater depth.
In the end, all the mysteries large and small are resolved and we wrap up with the two timelines neatly brought together.
If you’re looking for a gritty, bleak noir tale, you’ve picked up the wrong book, but for those seeking something from the crime menu that is a little softer yet still includes plenty of intrigue, there is much to enjoy here. - Louise Fairbairn
Down To The Sea, by Sue Lawrence, Contraband, £8.99