ETA: New cover for the ebook! I do prefer it to the original cover for the re-release (right), but my comments below re the original retro covers still stand…
I’ve a bit of a soft spot for modern Gothics, and so when I was offered a review copy of Catherine Gaskin‘s THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN, I took one look at the blurb and was sold.
A poignant, thrilling tale, full of intrigue, mystery and romance.
Shortly after her mother’s death in a Swiss plane crash, Jo Roswell is sent from the London auction house where she works to the remote and mysterious Thirlbeck – stately home of the Earl of Askew. Jo’s task is to evaluate the house’s contents for a sale, but she soon finds herself drawn into the complex lives of Thirlbeck’s inhabitants, each with their own secrets and desires.
Jo is absorbed by the tragic story of The Spanish Lady, whose young life was cut short at Thirlbeck many centuries before. She also encounters La Española, the brilliant diamond which, according to legend, brings disaster to all who try to possess it. And she is shocked to learn of her own mother’s connection to Thirlbeck.
The book was first published in 1974, so falls into the category of “past contemporary” stories that always intrigues me. Social norms and mores of a bygone era are captured unconsciously on the pages because the era is not at all historical to the author – it’s the present, and as a result, I feel as though I get this sneaky peek into what life really was like back then* (always allowing for any author biases and artistic licence, of course…). It’s the little things that add an extra dimension to the story for me – in PROPERTY, we have Jo, the heroine, smoking cigarettes with wild abandon (and in bed!) and all the characters appear to have cigarette cases of their own.
As for the story itself, you’re immediately plunged into the mystery that is Thirlbeck, this isolated manor with hidden art treasures in the middle of the Lake District. The brooding country house atmosphere of Thirlbeck contrasted nicely with Jo’s trips to the metropolis that was London, which certainly felt very real and had a genuinely British feel – which made a single throwaway reference to “soccer” all the more jarring and had me wondering whether I’d missed the fact Jo was American (she wasn’t). That aside, I did like Jo’s London, especially when we spent time at the art auction house where she worked (loosely modelled on Christie’s, according to the author’s note) . If you were wondering, the title of the book comes from that world, and I thoroughly enjoyed the related nuggets of information scattered throughout the book:
There could be heartbreak behind the sale of some single item, or a whole collection, cloaked, the owner hoped, by the discretion of Hardy’s and under the obscure designation of “The Property of a Gentleman”, or some other kindly shield and salve for pride.
Catherine Gaskin. The Property of a Gentleman (Kindle Locations 216-217). Corazon Books.
However, I have to say that I felt a bit let down by the romance subplot. Although the eventual romantic interest was telegraphed clearly to any romance reader, there was something lacking – I was left thinking it could have been more. But I loved Jo’s independence and the way she tackled life. There was a nice twist at the end, which I didn’t see coming at all (make of that what you will – I admit to being notoriously oblivious at times), and an ending that tied up loose ends rather nicely.
So a satisfying read overall – I’d never heard of Catherine Gaskin before this, but having looked her up, I can see she was a prolific writer, and I can only hope more of her backlist gets released in digital form**.
*As an aside, I wonder what people will be saying about today’s contemporaries in fifty years’ time…
**Though perhaps with covers that retain something of the original feel? The original hardback and paperback covers of PROPERTY (which I’ve included in this post) have this retro charm about them which I love.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher.