The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

Penguin UK| 13 January 2022| 283 pages| e-book| Review copy/4*

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Synopsis:

I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unravelling from an upper window, and the terrace bathed in a hectic orange light…. Now I see that the decision I made at Polneath was the only decision of my life. Everything marred in that one dark minute.

By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.


From the award-winning author of The Witchfinder’s Sister comes a captivating story of burning secrets and buried shame, and of the loyalty and love that rises from the ashes.

My thoughts:

The Key in the Lock is Beth Underdown’s second book. I read her first book The Witchfinder’s Sister (my review) and enjoyed it immensely, so I had high expectations that I’d enjoy this book too – and it fully met my expectations. It is historical fiction set between two periods 1888 and 1918 in Cornwall.

It captures both time periods, reflecting the society both before and after the First World War showing the changes that the war had made. I loved the slow pace of this book as the secrets surrounding the death of William, the seven year old son of Edward Tremain in 1888 in a fire at Polneath, and that of Ivy’s son, Tim, on the battlefields of France are gradually revealed.

Both stories are shrouded in mystery as the circumstances of how William and Tim died are by no means clear. Ivy is devastated by Tim’s death and is determined to discover what actually happened to him, the letter informing them of his death was not phrased in the normal form of words. She wondered why.

It brought back painful memories of little William’s death. The fire at Polneath had started at night when everyone had gone to bed. William had been in the maid’s room, not his own bedroom when he had died. The postmortem revealed that he had died from asphyxiation by inhaling the smoke. Found under the bed, with paint from the door under William’s fingernails and bruised hands, it appeared that he must have been locked in and yet when he was found the door was standing open. The conclusion was that at some point the door had been locked – and later unlocked by a person or persons unknown.

The events surrounding each death are gradually revealed and there are plenty of secrets that come to light. It is described as a ‘gothic’ novel, but apart from the setting in an old isolated house, that had once been an ancient manor house, I didn’t find it gothic at all. It is a complicated story and at times I had to go back to make sure I’d got the facts right. I really liked Ivy and I liked the way her character is shown to develop with the passage of time. I loved the details about the attitudes to the First World War and the change from the earlier period. This is a novel full of grief and the circumstances surrounding both deaths provide an element of mystery. I loved the way the two time periods were interlocked as the novel progressed. I was fully engaged in it and I’ll be looking out for Beth Underdown’s next book.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

‘The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…’

1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.

To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

Based on the true story of the man known as the Witchfinder General, this exquisitely rendered novel transports you to a time and place almost unimaginable, where survival might mean betraying those closest to you, and danger lurks outside every door.

My thoughts:

When I read the description of The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown I was immediately drawn to the story based on the life of the 1640s witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. As well as a good story it is a fascinating look at life in England during the Civil War, set in 1645, a time of great change and conflict in politics, religion and philosophical ideas, coinciding with a growth in the belief in witchcraft.

I enjoyed it immensely. It’s historical fiction that combines fact and fiction, told through the eyes of Matthew’s sister, Alice, a fictional character. Beth Underwood has researched and used the historical sources so well. What is so chilling about this book is that the events it describes really did happen.

There is a glossary at the end of the book describing, among other terms, the methods used to investigate women accused of being witches, such as ‘searching‘ where their bodies were inspected for ‘teats’, ‘swimming‘, an ordeal by water in which women were bound and lowered into a pond or river; they were innocent if they sank, and ‘watching‘ in which a suspected woman would be tied to a stool in the middle of a room, kept awake and observed for hours. Women were treated in this way if they were accused of causing harm to their neighbours for such things as the death of a neighbour’s horse or for the unexplained deaths of children. For the superstitious every sudden death, or accident, every miscarriage or illness, was considered to be caused by witchcraft.

There is a pervading sense of fear and terror as Alice discovers what Matthew is doing, intensified when he forces her to help with his investigations, travelling throughout Essex. She tries to stop him, but fearful of him accusing her mother-in-law, Bridget, she has to go along with him. She also discovers family secrets about their parents and Matthew’s birth. The witch hunts escalated as grief-stricken and angry women accused other women and their names were added to Matthew’s list. After his investigations the women were then sent to prisons to await their trials.

It is clear that the women accused were vulnerable, often widows living isolated lives, some suffering with what we would consider to be a mental illness, with no male family members to keep them safe from persecution. Matthew’s own mother showed signs of mental illness, subject to many strange habits and obsessive compulsive behaviour. But Matthew is unable to accept the facts and grows ever more fanatical.

It all hangs together as a piece of fiction, with clearly described and defined characters, making their feelings and actions perfectly believable – even Matthew comes across as a well-rounded character – and set against the background of a country in the midst of civil war. It makes harrowing reading and I found it deeply moving.

I grew very fond of Alice and her maid Grace but was appalled by the final twist at the end of the book.

Beth Underdown lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. The Witchfinder’s Sister is her first novel.

My thanks to the publishers and NeGalley for my copy of this book. It is to be published on 2 March 2017.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 6546 KB
  • Print Length: 361 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0241978033
  • Publisher: Penguin (2 Mar. 2017)