Title: The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess and a Family Secret
Author: Catherine Bailey
Publisher: Penguin Books
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Review: In April 1940, John Henry Montagu Manners, the ninth Duke of Rutland, was diagnosed with pneumonia. But rather that spending time recuperating in his elegant personal rooms, John resisted the orders from his doctors and locked himself in a suite of dank, musty rooms in the bottom corner of his family’s vast castle. John had been in the rooms, the home of his family’s vast archives, almost constantly for months, but no one in the castle seemed to know what he was doing.
John died, likely alone, in the archives on April 21, 1940. Immediately after, his son had the rooms sealed. They remained closed for sixty years until historian Catherine Bailey became one of the first people allowed inside. As she combed the archives, Bailey discovered there were deliberate gaps in the collection. While organizing the archive, it seems John carefully destroyed all of the correspondence for three distinct periods. What secrets were so devastating he would sacrifice his life to make sure they never got out? Those are the stories that Bailey set out to tell in The Secret Rooms.
One of the things I loved about this book is that it’s a story of the process of uncovering a mystery as much as it is a book about the mystery itself. After setting up the Duke’s strange behavior at the end of his life, Bailey backs up to share how she stumbled across the mystery and her extensive process exploring, proving and disproving theories to explain the gaps that John put into his family history. If you are not into that kind of storytelling style, then I bet the book will be more frustrating than satisfying… but I totally loved it.
Unfortunately, the book started to lose a little momentum for me during the final third, when Bailey started to uncover the secret behind the third gap in John’s letters. The missing time period had to do with John’s service in World War I and his mother’s attempts to keep him away from the front in France. The book spent a lot of time filling in details about British and French strategy at the beginning of the war, a topic I find, to be honest, pretty dull. And without giving away too much, I’ll just say that the motivation Bailey uncovers for the final scandal John was trying to hide wasn’t nearly as surprising as I think Bailey tries to make it.
On the whole, I thought this book was a great read. The first two-thirds are awesome — gripping, mysterious and entertaining all at the same time. The final third is a little dull, but not so much that it took away from my overall enjoyment of this book. If you like historical mysteries and the tribulations of the rich and crazy, this book is worth picking up.
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