January 27, 2012 10:03 pm

Art, death and intrigue

A wealthy art-lover becomes entangled in the mysterious killing of an artist’s daughter

 Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris, Faber, RRP£7.99, 624 pages

In Glasgow for the 1888 International Exhibition, wealthy art-lover Harriet Baxter inveigles her way into the home of up-and-coming artist Ned Gillespie, whom she had met at his previous London exhibition. An ardent patronage of Ned ensues – until one of his daughters goes missing. Her corpse turns up weeks later and Harriet, among others, is arrested; but her trial sheds little light on the tragedy.

Far from a regular whodunit, this sharply written intrigue is a triumph of suggestion and possibility that exerts a tenacious hold on the imagination. Recounting the affair in 1933, Harriet emerges as a marvellously unreliable witness to her own life.

Harris populates these macabre proceedings with fascinating characters. Matriarchal Mrs Gillespie’s overbearing zeal, Ned’s insipid presence, the increasingly disturbed behaviour of his surviving daughter – all amplify the sense of uncertainty that builds throughout this satisfyingly long novel.

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