The back blurb said two people died and someone Rachel loved killed them.
The truth was that I didn't care who died and I didn't care who killed them. All the characters were despicable -- except Mrs Willie the housekeeper and George the dog.
Only the buddy read kept this from being a DNF.
Only the tightness of the plot kept this from being a 1-star, and only Howatch's writing kept it from being a half-star.
Brief overview, with maybe a spoiler.
Rachel Lord -- I kept forgetting her last name -- receives a cryptic invitation to her friend Decima's coming-of-age party in Scotland. The two friends have been out of touch for about two years, since Decima's wedding to a renowned scholar, Charles Mannering. Anyway I think that's his last name. I know it wasn't Middleton, because Charles Middleton was Ming the Merciless.
Rachel arrives at Roshven, Decima's ancestral estate, on Thursday. Decima turns 21 at midnight Saturday. So the whole thing takes place in something like a little over 48 hours.
In addition to Decima, Charles, and Rachel, there are three other guests: Charles's cousin and Rachel's lifelong friend Rohan Quist, Charles's former student at Oxford Daniel Carey, and Daniel's sister Rebecca.
Everyone spends the next two days confiding in Rachel that they are either having/not having an affair with Decima or Charles, that they are afraid of being killed by Decima/Charles/Rebecca/Daniel/Rohan, that they know Rebecca/Daniel/Rohan is having an affair with Decima or Charles . . . or maybe both.
All in all, they were a tiresome, desperate, despicable lot. And Rachel was just a doormat for listening to them and not telling them all to go jump in the Cluny Sands and get sucked to perdition.
The threats/fears of murder hinge on Decima's inheritance. According to her father's will, if she lives to midnight Saturday, she inherits the estate and its fortune; if she dies beforehand, it all goes to Charles. If she dies after midnight, but without children, it goes to Charles. She, however, has made her own will, which will be effective only if she survives to midnight.
Well, of course, she doesn't. Someone kills her, but that someone had already killed Charles. So that lets Charles off the hook for her murder. We can assume Rachel didn't do it, since she's the more or less "heroine" of the story. That leaves the Carey siblings with their really unhealthy relationship, or Rohan.
And here's where Howatch's plot becomes sort of interesting, a kind of reward for the reader's having plowed through the awful mess thus far: Daniel Carey arranges Charles's body to make it look as though the professor committed suicide after killing Decima. Daniel persuades Rachel to go along with him in presenting this scenario to the police. The impression given is that Daniel is protecting his sister, whom he believes committed the murders.
I told you their relationship was unhealthy.
More unhealthy, however, is Rachel's relationship with Daniel.
She has fallen in love with him, even though he's really a disgusting person. Was he having an affair with Decima or not? Was he plotting to kill her or not? Was he plotting to kill Charles or not? (We won't even get into whether he was boinking his sister or not.) Rachel has fallen in love with this jerk after knowing him two days and despite seeing how eager he is to cover up a murder, which he himself may have committed!
At that point, after the murders are "investigated" by the police and the conclusion of murder/suicide is accepted, Rachel goes back to London and eventually ends up in New York. I'm not sure why the whole New York thing is thrown in, but it is. She still pines for Daniel, even though she still thinks he and/or Rebecca murdered both Charles and Decima. Daniel, who had been a very ambitious academic, gives up his career to teach in Africa. I'm not sure what Rebecca did and I don't care.
Five years after the murder, a kind of reunion is arranged, to take place at the now abandoned estate of Roshven. While sneaking into the actual house with her lifelong buddy Rohan, Rachel suddenly remembers a tiny clue about the night of the murder and realizes neither Rebecca nor Daniel could be the killer. Therefore, the killer had to be Rohan.
Climactic scene on the beach, and the quicksand delivers justice.
And Daniel covers up the truth again!
There were elements of DuMaurier's Rebecca in this, or at least according to Rohan there were. We'll never know for sure. The only person who knows the whole truth is dead, and everyone else is covering up.
I think that's what I disliked most about the whole romantic resolution: Daniel was too eager to tell lies under far too many different circumstances. First it was just nastiness, then it was to protect his sister whom he thought was guilty of a double murder, then it was to make someone feel less horrible about the death of their child. So some of his motives for lying were maybe good, but he still seemed too willing to avoid the truth. I wouldn't trust him as a husband.
Although Howatch's writing was on the whole professional and evocative, I disliked her frequent use of long monologues to reveal backstory. There are ways to break those up with some description and action and reaction. They come across as contrived and insincere on the part of the writer.
All in all, a poor experience, but a learning one. And the Harry Bennett cover was probably worth it!
Because of the limited cast of characters and the remote setting, I'm using this for the Cozy Mystery square, whether anyone likes it or not. ;-)