“…. Connie lined up the scalpel and cut. At first, a gentle shifting, nothing more. Then the tip of the blade pierced the skin, and the point slipped in.”
Kate Mosse returns to her native Chichester for the setting of her new novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter.
The year is 1912, a time of mackintoshes, umbrellas, hansom cabs and lots of cigarette smoke. Connie Gifford is twenty-two years old and suffers from retrograde amnesia as the result of an accident when she was twelve. Crowley Gifford, her father, has become a habitual drunkard after losing his museum of taxidermy following a court case, and they now live together in an isolated house in the village of Fishbourne, a mile or so from Chichester. At the beginning of the novel, Connie is in the village churchyard on St Mark’s Eve at the celebration of an ancient festival. She notices several men who are not villagers and who seem to be out of place at such a gathering. She also feels she is being watched by a mysterious woman in a blue woollen coat. And when a body turns up in the stream beside her home wearing the same coat, Connie is pitched into a tale of terrible wrong and macabre retribution. Her memories begin to return – memories of the accident, of being nursed back to health, and of a childhood friend called Cassie.
“I removed his heart first, red and still beating, still pumping. Watching it slow, stutter and die. Next his lungs and his stomach …”
Connie’s father has gone missing after a bout of heavy drinking and she teams up with Harry Woolston, a would-be artist, whose doctor father has also disappeared. As she gradually recollects snatches of her past, Connie begins to realise there is much more to the disappearances and to the death of the young woman than was at first apparent. Moreover, the events surrounding her accident were more sinister than her father always led her to believe.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter is not a novel for anyone with a weak stomach. It is a page-turner of a thriller which, for me, called to mind the title of another story – What Lies Beneath – in this case beneath the surface of a typical charming English village. Kate Mosse gives her story a gothic feel – a deserted cottage, lonely marshes, an ice house containing old secrets, and plenty of gore and death, human as well as animal. There is also a maleficent secret society and more than one character with a talent for cutting and stuffing. Mosse adds to the suspense by interspersing the narrative with quotations from an 1820 work on taxidermy. She also gives the floor to the murderer – yes, there is one (more than one in fact) – in the form of a diary, cunningly avoiding mention of his or her identity. To reveal more would risk spoiling the plot for new readers, so I shall stop there, except to mention that there is a nail-biting finish on a flooded marsh and wind-swepped sea wall in Sussex.
Suffice to say that birds play an important role. The Corvidae Club! Remember your schooldays, your English grammar lessons and all those collective nouns you were forced to recite: a colony of jackdaws; a tiding of magpies; a parliament of rooks; a MURDER of crows ……..
“Who killed Cock Robin? I, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin!”
Kate Mosse admits in her acknowledgements that Fishbourne has never flooded and that the sea wall (not even built in 1912) has never given way. Some of the places featured in the novel do not exist, and there is no record of gruesome murders in the locality in 1912. Yet, after reading The Taxidermist’s Daughter with its dark, gothic atmosphere, one might almost believe that the events described really took place.