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Review: ‘The Secret Rooms’ by Catherine Bailey

Review: ‘The Secret Rooms’ by Catherine Bailey post image

Title: The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess and a Family Secret
Author: Catherine Bailey
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Penguin Books
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★☆

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.

Other Reviews: Bookalicious Babe | Lovely Treez Reads |

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  • bermudaonion (Kathy) January 20, 2014, 10:11 am

    Oooh, that does sound good!

  • Kailana January 20, 2014, 12:59 pm

    I am looking forward to this at some point!

  • Melinda January 21, 2014, 2:53 am

    Sounds good! I’m all for books about mysteries.

  • tanya January 21, 2014, 6:52 am

    I am intrigued! I need to know what the secrets were!

  • Athira January 21, 2014, 12:19 pm

    I’m really intrigued by this one now. But I’m torn. I am not a fan of lots of buildup followed by anticlimactic events.

    • Kim January 26, 2014, 12:55 pm

      It was a tricky book. I was really into it for the first two thirds, then the last third petered off. I think it’s still worth reading, but with slightly tempered expectations.

  • Rebecca @ Love at First Book January 21, 2014, 2:40 pm

    This is nonfiction? How interesting, based on the title!

    • Kim January 26, 2014, 12:56 pm

      Yep, it’s nonfiction. I love the title — it’s one of the reasons I picked up the book!

  • Cindie @ Nonfictionado January 22, 2014, 10:17 am

    It had me at “plotting duchess”, although if the plot is just to keep her son off of the front lines, that sounds a bit anticlimactic. I’m a sucker for a good nonfiction historical mystery though so I’ll probably read it anyway!

    • Kim January 26, 2014, 12:57 pm

      The dutchess has a few plots going, but I’d say the main one of the book was her plan to keep her son safe during the war (for some pretty selfish reasons beyond that she cared for him). It’s a great mystery though — I think you’d like it!

  • Linda Boa @ crimeworm November 13, 2014, 5:53 pm

    I’d really recommend her previous book, Black Diamonds, about the coal fortune amassed by the Fitzwilliam family, and their home, Wentworth House which was – and remains – the biggest in Great Britain: 365 rooms, 5 miles of corridors, and a frontage twice as wide as Buckingham Palace. They also had family secrets they were determined to keep secret, by destroying all family papers in a huge bonfire, but Catherine Bailey does a fine job unearthing them – much scandal, with divorces, children possibly born out of wedlock and disputes over wills to rival Jarndyce v Jarndyce…incidentally, I read last week the house is for sale, if any of you are feeling flush…

    • Kim November 16, 2014, 2:09 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look for that one!