5 Thrilling Manor House Novels with Modern Setting and Ties to the Past

5 Thrilling Manor House Novels with Modern Setting and Ties to the Past

Thursday, 31 October, 2019

This week, we’re celebrating the sometimes spooky, often isolated, always irresistible atmosphere of stories set in imposing manor houses.

All of the novels in this particular list have modern settings, but their stories reach back in time to explore how the past has an inexorable effect on the present. Set in Sweden, Scotland, England, Canada, and Salem, Massachusetts, these stories place memorable characters in dire circumstances so we can live vicariously — and safely — through them. There are witches and unreliable cooks, bristling family reunions and true love, twins, Nazis, so much drama, and, in a few cases, murder. Welcome home.

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The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane - Katherine Howe

This New York Times best seller embodies adjectives like spellbinding, beguiling, enchanting, and bewitching. It begins in an abandoned mansion, just as a good story set in Salem, Massachusetts, should. Our heroine Connie Goodwin (note the subtle nod to infamous Salem witch trial victim Goody Proctor), is summering in witch town to finish her doctoral research. She’s also been recruited by her mother to sell her deceased grandmother’s decaying estate.

Whilst rambling through the house, Connie discovers an antique key inside a seventeenth-century Bible. Attached to the key is an aged slip of parchment inscribed with a name: Deliverance Dane. Connie does what any alarmingly curious researcher would do: She begins a quest to learn everything she can about Deliverance Dane.

Her little detective project comes with unexpected side effects, including but not limited to, disturbing visions, library sleuthing, a touch of romance, and the growing realization that she and the legacy of the house might have more to do with Salem’s dark past than she knew. {more}

She was always puzzled that people say that darkness falls. To her it seemed instead to rise, massing under trees an shrubs, pouring out from under furniture, only reaching the sky when the spaces near the ground were full. — Katherine Howe

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larssen

This grindingly suspenseful novel is an adroit combination of locked-room mystery, character study, political thriller, and family saga that begins in the 1990s and reaches back through time to the 1960s and WWII.

When we meet our antihero journalist Mikael Blomkvist, he’s just lost a libel case and will soon be reporting to jail for three months. At loose ends until his sentence starts, he’s offered a somewhat sinister lifeline by the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden — the Vangers. Forty years ago, Henrik Vanger’s beloved niece disappeared, and he wants Mikael to use his investigative journalistic skills to dig into the case.

Mikael is forced to get to know the siblings in the Vanger family, and they are terrible: damaged, inconsistent, ruthless, wildly intelligent, and shut off from the rest of the world by their estate and their privilege.

Then Lisbeth Salander, punk hacker and a talented investigator in her own right, enters the picture. Covered in tattoos and emitting a loud F-off vibe, she’s also brutally intelligent and an unrelenting cyber spy.

When she and Mikael team up, they uncover secrets galore, unintentionally set off emotional bombs that rock the Vangers, put themselves in shocking danger, and ultimately, discover what really happened on that summer day in the ’60s. {more}

Much stronger boys in her class soon learned that it could be quite unpleasant to fight with that skinny girl. Unlike other girls in the class, she never backed down, and she would not for a second hesitate to use her fists or any weapon at hand to protect herself. She went around with the attitude that she would rather be beaten to death than take any shit. — Stieg Larssen

Payment in Blood - Elizabeth George

Payment in Blood
> Elizabeth George

These are people you’d love to know, despite the fact that grisly murders follow everywhere they go. Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (posh, wealthy, good looking) and his unconventional partner Barbara Havers (very smart, but kind of a mess and always getting in her own way) usually work in the bustle of London.

In this book, they travel to the isolated Scottish loch-side house of Westerbrae, where a group of actors has gathered for the reading of a new play. As snow piles up outside, someone drives an 18-inch Scottish dagger — known as a dirk — through the playwright’s neck as she sleeps. Tensions run high, and emotions are deep as everyone in the house becomes a suspect.

Like the 1920s house-party murder novels that are its inspiration, this crime has a lengthy list of equally likely suspects, including a beloved actress, the play’s director, the victim’s sister, a drama critic, the lady of the manor, and — much to his chagrin — the woman that Inspector Lynley desperately loves.

To get to the truth, the detectives pry out long-held secrets, arrange emotional confrontations, and find themselves the catalysts and participants in searing, heart-breaking moments. It’s all terribly good, deadly fun. {more}

I know she caused you grief. But for God’s sake, did she deserve to die alone, with an eighteen-inch dagger plunged through her neck? — Elizabeth George

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale
> Diane Setterfield

In this exquisitely spine-tingling ghost story, terribly broken people are haunted by their memories. The atmosphere curls around like a damp fog, and when the truth of a decades-old mystery is revealed, it is very satisfying and sad, as all good ghost stories should be.

It starts with a reticent old crone — a reclusive mystery author named Vida Winter. Sensing that death is closer than it’s ever been, she invites another writer (with secrets of her own) to document Vida’s life story at her isolated Yorkshire estate. The tale unfolds from there with plenty of surprises and an emotional wallop.

Our heroine, Margaret Lea, deeply loves books, and she lists among her favorite books several of our favorites, including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White. These literary references offer a peek inside her psyche, so when she makes perilous choices like some whispy heroine in a gothic novel, her actions make a twisted sort of sense. {more}

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftely, then take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. — Diane Setterfield

A Rule Against Murder - Louise Penny

A Rule Against Murder
> Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is compassionate, intelligent, measured in his speech, generous with his praise, quick to accept responsibility for cock-ups, and — not for nothing — always smells like sandalwood.

He and his wife Reine-Marie leave their hometown of Three Pines to celebrate their wedding anniversary at the Manoir Bellechasse, a remote and luxurious mansion on a lake, surrounded by forest. Unfortunately, the Finney family — rich, cultured, horrible people — has also gathered at the inn for a family reunion. During a storm that disrupts the stifling heat and humidity of the summer, one of the Finneys is killed.

Inspector Gamache senses murder, and the suspect pool is rich with prospects, including the family members who throw daggers with words and glares, and the Bellechasse’s staff: chef, maître d’, and the imperious owner herself. This page-turner pays homage to golden-age, locked-room mysteries. Imagine an Agatha Christie novel, but with probing examination of the characters’ psyches and a detective you’d love to invite over for dinner. {more}

What killed people wasn’t a bullet, a blade, a fist to the face. What killed people was a feeling. Left too long. Sometimes in the cold, frozen. Sometimes buried and fetid. And sometimes on the shores of a lake, isolated. Left to grow old, and odd. — Louise Penny

What’s your favorite modern manor house story? Share in comments!

Top image courtesy of Spencer Means.

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These books — set between the two world wars — feature houses that could be a safe haven for the characters, if it weren't for all the tension, the close quarters, the haunted feelings, and oh, yeah... muuuurder.
From classics 'Jane Eyre' and 'Northanger Abbey' to Agatha Christie and Tana French, the creaky halls and haunted histories of manor houses are the ideal backdrop for secrets, ghosts, betrayal, and romance.
In literature (and life), a home is often seen as a reflection of a person's status, motivation and values — a nifty shorthand for conveying character. The stately manors in these six classics speak volumes.

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