Review: The Diabolical Bones, Bella Ellis

I was looking forward to this sequel from more or less the moment I finished The Vanished Bride. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that rather than struggling to suspend my disbelief over the idea of the Brontë sisters as private detectives, my reaction was to wonder why nobody had tried to do this before. A second instalment was inevitable but less certain was whether it could maintain the same standard. To my great delight, it definitely has. Set in 1846, the sisters once again find themselves with a case to solve. There’s been a grim discovery up at Top Withens. A set of bones have been found bricked up in a chimney breast, in a room that nobody has been in for years. And dark rumours swirl about the house’s owner, Clifton Bradshaw, who is rumoured to have sold his soul to the Devil. Can the Brontës crack the case?

While Vanished Bride established the franchise, The Diabolical Bones feels like the series hitting its stride. The sisters have embraced their interest in detecting and have only been seeking an appropriate case. Having rejected various possibilities further from home, they are pleased to discover a mystery right on their doorstep. But with the murky reputation of the Bradshaws, there are those who would say it is not a suitable or safe business for them to be sticking their noses in. Among the loudest voices of dissent is the Brontës own housekeeper Tabby. Is it possible that there are occult forces at work?

As a Brontëphile, I find this series to be such an absolute treat. Rowan Coleman, the writer behind the pen-name Bella Ellis, really knows her stuff and has clearly done her research. She has managed in both books to weave in her own mystery very closely to the known events of the Brontë family’s lives. And strangely, while I am aware that it is fairly preposterous that the sisters ever fought crime, Ellis’ depiction of the trio is still one of the most convincing versions that I can ever remember reading. Charlotte is neurotic and seeking advancement, Anne is compassionate and has integrity and Emily … well. She just steals the show with her every blunt utterance.

It’s fascinating how Ellis has taken the little we know of the Brontë sisters’ true characters and refashioned these traits to become useful in the art of detection. Anne’s passion for social justice gives her a drive to seek the truth, Charlotte’s desire to make friends in high places adds in twists and turns to the narrative and Emily’s bland detachment from social norms gives her an insight that others miss. When they examine the scene where the bones were found, Anne notices various crow skulls in the chimney-breast. Emily flatly responds that this is a sign that the birds were attracted by carrion so the body was not put in the chimney as a skeleton. It’s CSI: Haworth edition.

I also loved how the sisters’ lives as writers bubble away in the background. Anne remarks that she finds someone frightening because ‘his voice creaks like an open coffin’ and Emily comments, ‘Oh that’s good. I’m having that’. Ellis does an excellent job at balancing the literary with the mystery. As with the previous book, there are obvious points of ‘inspiration’ for the sisters’ later writings as well as a heavy helping of social context such as the inhumane treatment of Irish labours. As an added background, we see Branwell slowly slumping into his alcoholism and pining for Mrs Robinson. The contrast could hardly be more pronounced between Diabolical Bones and Brontë’s Mistress. Where Mistress was bafflingly plotted with unconvincing characters who were all consistently unpleasant, Bones is witty, fun and has an engaging cast and compelling plot.

As a further point, having found the Mistress depiction of Anne Brontë to be rather cruel, I was particularly pleased by Ellis’ more nuanced and effective portrayal of Anne’s character. When asked to speak to a potential suspect on the grounds that she is the ‘nice’ sister, Anne wryly observes that ‘nicest of the Brontës’ is likely to be her epitaph. It is so easy to dismiss Anne as merely ‘nice’. Ellis’ defence of Anne is underlined by another conversation between Emily and Anne where the former tells the latter:

Why wouldn’t your honest and true reflections have merit equal to any words ever written by anyone?’ Emily asked, ‘What greater merit is there than the communication of the experience of one human soul to another? In this world of men, the literary types seek to elevate themselves above the ordinary. Their thoughts must be superior, their feelings more important than yours or mine. It’s all artifice, Anne. Your thoughts, your feelings, your sentiment, as you put it, will ring true with those who read it. They will see honesty and integrity, and though you may never know their names, you and they will be connected somehow, not only now but for all of time. Besides, if I am honest, it is you who have the greatest courage of us all, you who speaks the truth and will not flinch from it.’

This passage made me want to punch the air in celebration – finally, someone else saw it too! I was so appalled by the snide remark in Mistress that Anne Brontë lacked courage in her writing and for that she deserved to be forgotten. Anne’s courage was that she wrote novels that attacked the very foundations of the patriarchy. In Agnes Grey, she argued that as a governess, she was not so far beneath her charges as society would have her believe. She portrayed incredibly vividly what it is like to try to teach children who have been brought up to despise education. In Tenant, she argued that a wife might have a moral duty to leave her husband to protect her children – blasphemy for the era. She did not write Gothic fiction because she was more interested in the dramas of real life. Thank you, Bella Ellis, it is so good to see Anne given the credit she deserves.

Of course, the book is not without its minor faults. I spotted the wrong ‘un early in the novel because they were the only ‘friend’ character who I did not recognise from any of the biographies that I have read – reading a book like this as a long-term Brontëphile is a double-edged sword. As with the previous book, I found the actual mystery to be the weakest part of the novel. It’s definitely a book that is more about character than plot. Despite this however, I finished it thinking excitedly that Ellis can surely slot in at least one and maybe two more mysteries into the family timeline before things get a bit depressing with all the consumption and death.

Ellis noted in her afterword that recent global events have left us all in greater need than ever of a good story. This is a statement which I strongly agree with – a combination of fiction and my own stand-up comedian of a toddler have got me through the pandemic – but yet the Brontë feel like unusual protagonists in this piece of warm-hearted ‘cosy crime’. But in many ways that’s why it works. We are so used to seeing the Brontës as tragic. Their lives were short, their works unfinished, their promise not quite fulfilled. But because of that, there is a particular joy in seeing that narrative flipped –  to read a version where rather than wasting away on the sofa, they instead kick up their heels and head off an adventure. Written with overwhelming affection and the greatest respect, The Brontë Mysteries series feels destined to run and run.

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The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis
Published by Hachette UK on October 8th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical, General, Mystery & Detective, Women Sleuths
Pages: 352
ISBN: 9781529389074

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