ARC Review – The Key In The Lock by Beth Underdown

Pages: 304
Published: 13th January 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Child death, sexual references

I received an advanced review copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, so my thanks go to the author and publisher for providing that. This was a buddy read with the wonderful Pauliina @ The Bookaholic Dreamer, and we had great fun discussing the book and coming up with ideas for plot twists!

By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.

But once you open a door to the past, can you ever truly close it again?

This is a book which offers an intriguing mystery yet fails to completely follow through on its early promise. The atmosphere is there in abundance as we are guided along by a narrator who provokes curiosity and occasional revelations that things are not quite as they seem, although it ends up lacking a clear focus and becoming slightly entangled in its various narratives.

As a historical fiction it is definitely immersive and keeps you turning the pages at a relatively brisk rate, even when the plot is not always the most riveting. There are moments where it does get intense and frightening, but these are too sporadic and any momentum gained never lasts especially long, while the technique of using dual timelines is not fully capitalised upon.

One evening in 1888, Ivy Cardew accompanies her father – the local doctor – to Polneath house, where a fire has taken the life of seven-year-old William Tremain. He was in the room belonging to the maid Agnes Draper, and the coroner Boscawen identifies that the blaze first started in his grandfather’s study. Even more mysteriously, the door to Agnes’ room was locked and she was not inside at the time.

While Mr Cardew and Boscawen conduct their work, Ivy stays at Polneath to gain Agnes’ trust and help try to establish what happened before the inquest takes place. Mr. Tremain and the cook Mrs Bly both point the finger of blame towards Agnes, and she feels more threatened by a number of strange incidents. Meanwhile, Ivy has romantic feelings towards William’s father Edward, but is already bequeathed to somebody else.

Three decades later, Ivy still lives nearby and is still somewhat resentfully married to Richard, who is in poor health. Their son Tim was recently killed in action during the First World War and she believes it was payback for something bad she did after the fire at Polneath. When she finds that Richard has been paying a woman for many years and assumes he has had an affair, she decides to make contact with Edward once again.

The opening chapters are a little slow paced, but they set the mystery up well and bring a suitably eerie atmosphere to both timelines. There are some unexpected surprises to be found and it turns into a bit of a puzzle to solve, but eventually the twist that arrives later on is rather predictable, and the characters are not engaging enough for the suspense to be truly felt.

However, one of the main problems is that the storytelling lacked cohesion and by the end the two main plotlines – William’s death and the relationship between Ivy and Edward – become a bit muddled. The dual timelines do not work very effectively and there were things which were either not explained clearly or, in the case of Tim, not wholly relevant.

The entire book is told from the perspective of Ivy, and there lies one of its biggest strengths. She may be an unusual character to figure out, but she is very interesting and does not always come across as the most reliable of narrators. There are many sides to her personality – extremely conscientious yet sometimes selfish and impulsive and often jumping to the wrong conclusion, which does not make her the most likeable.

Her marriage to Richard in the later timeline is a curious one, and the reasons for her discontent are not adequately justified, other than the fact she did not end up with Edward. For all of Ivy’s words, Richard actually comes across as a very decent person, while Edward is portrayed as tragic and respectable, but even he is not above suspicion.

Agnes is also a well written character as it is only towards the end where you learn the full meaning of some of her words and actions in the earlier timeline, having previously only told the reader half the story. She is a true survivor, and much more considered than one may originally think. By contrast, Tremain is much easier to work out, although you do wonder sometimes if he might be too much of an obvious villain.

We get a reasonable amount of atmosphere from the setting, and with the book taking place mostly in Cornwall it was nice to see it have a sense of place. The fires at Polneath really offer it that feeling of oncoming danger and it was this in part that made the earlier timeline much more enticing than its counterpart, with Ivy being caught up in a series of unsettling incidents.

The best thing about the writing was that it keeps you engaged and makes it feel like a relatively quick read. It did go into too much unnecessary detail at times and a number of sentences contain an excessive use of commas, but on the other hand it is quite accomplished and provides a strong feel for the historical time period.

Overall, there are definitely some highlights in this story, but it does not quite live up to initial expectations. After an opening that sets things up brilliantly, it rather meanders along and switches not especially convincingly between the two timelines during a plot which is lacking in direction and clarity. The potential is there in spades, just not the end result.

Born in Rochdale in Greater Manchester, Beth Underdown studied creative writing at the University of Manchester, where she is now a lecturer. Having also worked as a waitress and an editorial assistant, it was during that course where she began work on her first novel.

The Witchfinder’s Sister was published in 2017, and this is her first book since then. According to Goodreads, her comfort reads are Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the ghost stories of MR James.

While intriguing and atmospheric, there just seemed to be something missing from this book, and I was disappointed with how the dual timelines were utilised. Still, far from a disaster.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐

6 thoughts on “ARC Review – The Key In The Lock by Beth Underdown

  1. Like Julie, I also have been having increasing problems with dual timelines. Sometimes they’re perfect, but sometimes I think writers do it to be “on trend” and the more modern timeline is unnecessary. Just tell me the story, okay? I don’t care if these people’s grandchildren have to figure out the mystery of their family’s past.

    Liked by 1 person

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