What’s a medium to do when the past won’t stay dead… literally?
Grave Expectations is the debut crime novel from author Alice Bell, following washed-up Claire and her best friend Sophie, who must solve a cold case at a stately home in the British countryside, home to the secretive Wellington-Forge clan. So far, so pat – except for the bit where Claire is a disgraced medium and Sophie is dead, having died mysteriously at seventeen and now tethered to Claire as both a spectre and a keen assistant to Claire’s amateur sleuthing. That old story indeed.
The concept of Grave Expectations is nothing short of delightful and the novel shines best when it’s exploring the ramifications of being a medium and being one in the modern day. Tonally it reads like Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) meets Midsomer Murders (the show, not the much-darker books by Caroline Graham): charming, breezy, with moments of pathos and darkness scattered throughout what is a predominantly light book.
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The heart of the novel is the relationship between Claire and Sophie, both adrift in their own ways and stuck in the past. Sophie is the more obviously trapped of the two, caught in spectral form following her death to follow her best friend around, but Claire herself is even more mired in the past. She’s a deeply flawed, incredibly messy protagonist, cursed with mediumship, and as a result her actions are both incredibly frustrating and enormously understandable.
That’s not to say that the other characters fall to the wayside here, although some of the suspects do slot too neatly into archetypes, such as the cartoonishly-evil patriarch or the buffoonish uncle. Claire and Sophie’s fellow sleuths in this story are part of the mystery’s central family, former detective Basher and non-binary fashion plate extraordinaire Alex, and both prove to be fun characters for Claire and even Sophie to bounce off, providing a fun team to anchor the story.
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The actual crime itself is more of a cipher to investigate the family at the centre of it all, which is both a shame and a blessing, depending on how much you value character exploration over a juicy whodunnit mystery. Fortunately there’s enough light and shade scattered throughout to keep the reader entertained, the light being the moments of bonding amongst our quartet of detectives, and the dark being a moment of revelation about Claire’s past that could strike as too bleak for some readers in what is otherwise a tonally cohesive work.
Upon conclusion, Grave Expectations manages to craft both a spirited (pun very much intended) cold-case mystery and some thoughtful character explorations for the majority of its page length, and seems set to launch a new series for readers to enjoy, one I would recommend all crime aficionados to investigate on their very own. Or maybe, just maybe, with a friend…
Grave Expectations is out on 4th May from Corvus.