I love Agatha Christie mysteries. After mastering the adventurous Hardy Boys and the magical Holmes, I fell in love as a child with the cool, considering Poirot and the keen, canny Miss Marple. As an adult, I love Christie’s mysteries not only for their entertainment but for how she writes about class and English society. Her novels are little slices of a time that no longer (if ever it did) exist, one populated by quaint country houses that host massive parties culminating, alas, in murder.
I mention Christie because one of the simplest ways to approach Dark Angel is to think of it as a mystery quite similar to Christie’s fare. Sally Beauman challenges the reader to consider an incident in 1910, at a party to watch Halley’s Comet. Eddie Shawcross, lover the mistress of Winterscombe, meets an untimely end in a man-trap while walking through the forest in the dark. Was it really all an accident? Or did someone set the trap and lead him into it from some dark motive of hatred and revenge?
Dark Angel is much like Winterscombe, the English estate where much of the book takes place: it’s a big, sprawling, somewhat ramshackle tale of interconnected spaces and dark, dimly-lit rooms. Beauman is ambitious in the scope and purpose of her narrative, for she aims not just to tell a single story but really chronicle the tangled web of multiple lifetimes across the two World Wars, from England to North America.
Ostensibly, the main narrative is Victoria’s recreation of the past based on her godmother’s journals and conversations with people who were actually there. Her godmother is Constance, Eddie’s daughter, who was ten years old at the time of Eddie’s death. Victoria is the granddaughter of Eddie’s lover and thus heir to Winterscombe, but by now it is far past its prime. Having been raised by Constance in the United States following her parents’ death, Victoria is looking for answers. Constance prevented her marriage to the man she thought she loved, and after a silence of eight years, the only thing Constance offers are these journals.
With this Beauman begins to show us what kind of person Constance is. It’s not just that she is manipulative, mercurial, capricious. She is a dangerous mixture of self-absorption, selfishness, and guilt. She can’t stand to be loved, but wants to be loved. She wants order from her life—as shown by her choice of career of interior decorator—but she feels uncomfortable with happiness, hers or others. Constance thrives on strife and scandal, because she feels it is what she deserves.
So it behoves both Victoria and the reader to take Constance’s journals with a healthy side of salt. Yes, the unreliable narrator is one of Dark Angel’s most attractive conceits. Multiple murderers surface with plausible motives and opportunities, creating a postmodern sensibility that any or all of these people could have been responsible. In the end, Beauman offers a resolution that is simple, shocking, and sad … yet, owing to Constance’s unreliability, it’s still possibly untrue. And perhaps that would be even sadder.
Beauman’s storytelling is second to none as Victoria unspools the lives of her grandparents, her uncles and aunts, and her own father and mother (whose identities are not revealed right away but instead hinted and gradually made clear). It’s the perfect kind of story for a long weekend or a rainy afternoon when you want to become involved, to start guessing and thinking about the clues the author offers up. Though the mystery is the hook, there is far more to this book than a simple whodunnit. The psychology of Beauman’s characters is complex and fascinating, with their thoughts and desires exposed to us for comment and, ultimately, even judgement.
Dark Angel is a rich and deep mystery. Like all good mysteries, it explores the dark drives that lurk within us, the desires and needs that can cause us to hurt ourselves or those around us. In this respect, murder is simply a symptom rather than the problem itself. By branching out beyond the mystery to chronicle a generation of characters, Beauman manages to tell a story far more interesting and complex.