Withering Heights: An Ellie Haskell Mystery
First introduced to readers in 1984's THE THIN WOMAN, Ellie
Haskell has since --- over the course of 11 delightfully cozy
mysteries --- gained a husband, three children, a career and a real
penchant for crime solving. But in WITHERING HEIGHTS, her 12th
adventure, Ellie's old demons come back to haunt her in what could
be her toughest case yet.
Ellie and her outrageously flamboyant housekeeper, Mrs. Roxie
Malloy, share more than just the love of solving mysteries. They
both love old-fashioned Victorian Gothic novels, the kind with "a
young woman who leaps at the chance to become a governess in a
decaying mansion where Something Unspeakable is shut away in the
north tower and melancholy music drifts up from the crypt." Ellie
also recently has begun sharing her love of Gothic romances with
her husband Ben's young relative Ariel, a troubled girl who seems
to find solace in the escapist fantasies. That is, until Ariel's
own family wins the lottery and disappears, presumably to hide away
from money-grubbing relatives.
One rainy night, though, Ariel herself shows up at Ellie's home,
begging for relief from her stepmother Betty, who has grown
obsessed with the idea that the ghost of their newly purchased
manor house still haunts his old property. Ariel encourages Ellie
and Ben to intervene, and they agree, especially when Ellie learns
that the manor is located in the Yorkshire moors, a short drive
from the Brontës' legendary home. By a great coincidence, it
just happens that Mrs. Malloy's younger sister Melody, with whom
she hasn't spoken in 40 years, also lives in the same Yorkshire
village. Figuring that it's high time for a reconciliation, Roxie
decides to tag along as well.
Of course, a road trip to a new village means introductions to all
sorts of quirky characters, from the displaced dowager, Lady Fiona,
to the aptly-named cook, Mrs. Cake. Pretty soon, Ellie finds
herself knee-deep in all their secrets and in more than one
But one secret in particular is eating Ellie up inside and causing
all her old self-doubts and self-loathing to rear their ugly heads.
Who is Valeria, the lovely and accomplished woman who seems to know
Ben? Was she the real love of Ben's life, lost long before he met
Ellie? And could Val's reappearance and Ben's sneaky behavior have
anything to do with the menacing prophecy that Mrs. Malloy
receives? "[A] woman of my acquaintance whose first name begins
with E should stop living in a dream world, seeing as her hubby's
old girlfriend is going to show up and this time around she'll stop
at nothing to get him."
Dorothy Cannell's mysteries always have been enjoyable to read, but
they have had a tendency to become formulaic after a while,
particularly with regards to Ellie's somewhat chaotic home life.
Removing Ellie from her home base --- and from her children, who
are out of the picture for the entire novel --- revitalizes the
plot considerably, giving this 12th adventure a new freshness. It
also has a legion of new characters for readers to learn, a feat
that can be a bit daunting for those accustomed to the regular
denizens of Chitterton Fells.
Cannell adeptly plays with Gothic conventions and expectations, and
particularly with Ellie's tendencies to fall into those somewhat
overblown romantic notions. Ellie's character development is also
notable, as her growing insecurities with regard to Val lead her to
question everything about herself and her comfortable life.
Cannell's many readers needn't fret too much, though --- it's clear
that nothing really bad is going to happen to Ellie, and liberal
foreshadowing and clue-dropping early on in the novel will lead
many to guess (some of) the secrets even before the literary
sleuths do. But there's nothing wrong with that --- Cannell's
mysteries appeal primarily due to their humor (particularly the
at-times wickedly funny dialogue) and their reassurances that, at
the end of the day, all's right in Ellie's world.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 24, 2011