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[780] The Scold’s Bridle – Minette Walters


“Confusion. The murderer wanted Mrs. Gillespie dead and confusion to follow. And why would they want confusion to follow? Because it would be much harder to proceed with any kind of normality if the mess surrounding Mrs. Gillespie’s death wasn’t sorted out.” (Ch.18, p.316)

The book deals with whether Mathilda Gillespie, considered by many to be a spiteful, snobbish bitch, was murdered or committed suicide. She is found dead in bathtub with slashed wrists, surrounded by nettles and Michaelmas daisies, and most disturbingly of all, a scold’s bridle on her head. It was an Medieval age instrument of punishment for a gossiping or nagging woman that consists of a cage with a spiked plate inserted in the mouth. When the woman speak the spike will cut the tongue. So whoever killed her must want her tongue curbed—that just shows how universally disliked this old woman was.

Mathilda wasn’t killed in a mad frenzy. It was all done with such meticulous care, even down to the flowers. You said yourself that arrangement was difficult to reproduce without help. (Ch.7, p.117)

Mathilda died in such mysterious circumstances and her GP, Dr. Sarah Blakeney, is the only one who stands to gain by her death. That Gillespie’s final will has superceded all previous ones and designates the doctor to be the sole beneficiary raise questions from Gillespie’s daughter and grand-daughter. Though they are ready to contest the will, but neither is free from suspicion. Joanna is a prostitute on dope and Ruth is a schoolgirl being blackmailed into theft by a rapist lover.

The story is revealed in layers, and entries from the victim’s diary going back in time show how dysfunctional the family all were. The plot itself is highly involved and is played out by an intriguing cast of characters who are no less fleshed out. There are numerous secrets and agendas for the authorities to discover and maneuver around if this case is to be solved. But the root is how tragically Mathilda Gillespie was brought up and traumatized as an adolescent, which has profound impact on her life. She had the intellectual capacity but her social conditioning was such that she allowed herself to be confined in one role she wasn’t suited for, namely marriage and motherhood.

Walters writes in rich literary prose that is rare in the mystery genre. She laces the narrative with references to the works of Shakespeare and drops social commentary along the way. It’s more than a whodunit and the ending is quite shrewd.

365 pp. St. Martin Press. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]