Book Review: Falling Creatures by Katherine Stansfield

Falling creatures by Katherine StansfieldFalling Creatures combines the genres of historical fiction, detective story and gothic ghost story in a rather unsettling way, producing a novel that is both haunting and full of suspense, though it is actually based on historical fact. The author, Katherine Stansfield, grew up on Bodmin Moor, where the novel is set, and the tragic murder of Charlotte Diamond is a familiar story to local residents. At the book launch, Stansfield explained that she has always wanted to write about this case, but it was only recently that she discovered a way into the story.   

It was the off-hand reference to another young woman in the account of Mrs Peters, the owner of the farm where Charlotte worked, which gave Stansfield the idea for Shilly, the narrator of the story. Shilly is illiterate, with limited experience of the world, but she’s a powerful character in her own right. The novel begins when she and Charlotte are both hired by Mrs Peters to work on the farm. Charlotte has a hypnotic effect on everyone, including Shilly herself, who soon develops an obsession with her. She has an uncanny ability to produce something from nothing, and to get her own way.

Charlotte disappears in mysterious circumstances, only to be discovered in the middle of the open moor a few days later with her throat slit. It is then that the story really begins to build. A man is accused of the crime and swiftly apprehended, but Shilly is convinced he didn’t do it, having suspicions of her own. Shilly soon joins forces with Mr Williams, who has his own reasons for wanting to uncover the truth.

The atmosphere of place is central to the novel. At the book launch, Stansfield described how Bodmin Moor is an incredibly powerful landscape, both isolated and wild. There is a large granite memorial on the very spot where Charlotte’s body was found, in the middle of open moorland, creating a puzzle, Stansfield explained, because she must have seen her murderer approach.

Things are not always as they seem in this book, and there is a strong theme of illusion and the supernatural. Shilly is constantly rebuked for talking of spectres and apparitions, but these are real to her, and we see them as real, through her eyes:

“At the ford the stream was full and flowing quickly. I drank a little. It was so cold my teeth hurt. A shadow fell across me. I wanted to look up to see what was there but my knees locked so I couldn’t rise. My neck wouldn’t turn. The cold of the water crept from my teeth to my cheeks then across my scalp and down my back. It was as if the chill had grown hands and they were trying to push me into the water…”

The language is simple, as narrated by an illiterate character, but it is vivid too, evoking all the senses.

Stansfield explained at the launch that she has departed quite radically from the historical facts in many ways, although scenes such as the court scene have direct quotes from the transcript of the real trial. She has also changed a few of the names, partly because many of the real characters were called John, which would have made for a confusing novel.

She described the challenge of writing a detective story set in a period before crime detection really existed, and her ‘detecting’ characters (Shilly and Mr Williams) are certainly unconventional. There is a fascinating back story to Mr Williams which is only touched upon in this novel, but Stansfield is currently working on the sequel, which I hope will reveal more of this enigmatic character.

It is a novel of suspense and surprises, which evokes a strange and foreboding landscape. I am still unsure what I think of the main characters – they are both fascinating and likeable, yet also hiding secrets of their own. Stansfield has produced an unusual and hypnotic tale, and I look forward to discovering what happens next.

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