Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson

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4stars

In 1907 Six eleven-year-olds are plucked out of their normal routines in London when they’re invited to spend the weekend at the reclusive and most famously charitable Countess Of Windermere’s sprawling manor in the countryside.

Our protagonist is bright and inquisitive Tabitha Crum and her only friend a cute little mouse named Pemberley spend their days shut up in her dingy attic bedroom when they’re not reading Inspector Percival Pensive mystery novels or doing the endless chores assigned by her brash parents.

Her crawl space was an assembly of slanting ceiling, an uneven floor, and one tiny square window. The only luxury present was half an inch of honey candle perched on a jam jar lid next to Tabitha’s sleeping mattress, which was made of old sofa padding. The candle flame offered no warmth but lent a lingering scent of sweetness to her personal area that saved it from feeling unbearably cold in spirit.

This is a very British, very finely written mystery. The tone is more on the serious side, this isn’t a cheeky satire like Horton Halfpott and while there is humor, it’s more subdued than in Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike: Wells & Wong Detective Agency series. The narrative here is descriptive and is storybook-esque, it’s a little quaint, and entirely timeless. Nooks & Crannies is categorized as middle-grade, but like I’ve said so many times before I’d like to dispute that this is not just kiddie lit.

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Had I been shelving this at a library I’d have a copy in both the children’s reading room and  the young adult, or teens, stacks as well. Yes the children are just that– they’re only 11 after all– but there’s nothing juvenile about Lawson’s writing. Absolutely anyone will be able to pick up Nooks & Crannies and have a marvelous time of it– most especially if they’re big on British humor and settings, the early 1900s time periods, and plucky, resourceful and clever heroines. The mysteries here are also well plotted and explained, but not overexplained. Lawson puts a lot of stock in her reader, and I love how the story reflects that and never takes on a instructional kind of manner.

Why, oh why, was it so much easier to interact with Pemberley than with people? It was desperately confusing to both yearn for others to include you and half wish that they wouldn’t.

This novel reads like Matilda meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory crossed with Clue. Especially with the narrative that revolves around the enigmatic hostess: Camilla Lenore DeMoss who fires her entire house staff every six months or so, and keeps her estate locked up tight. Newspapers and magazines are abound with stories speculating what she looks like and behaves like and stands for but no one ever seems to know for sure ANYTHING but that she’s incredibly generous with donating to a variety of charities. Beyond that, rumors of the ghosts of her deceased husband, sister and son haunting the Hollingsworth Hall have swirled around for years, could these unhappy haunts be a reason why the house staff leaves so frequently and has to stay mum?

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In the same vein as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory we have six children given the opportunity to be the winner of some humongous prize. In Nooks & Crannies is not confections that are up for grabs, but instead a hefty inheritance, a new house, and a surprise Grandmother to boot. The reason young Frances, Oliver, Edward, Viola, Barnaby, and Tabitha were summoned is revealed early on when the Countess confesses that their parents have been keeping secrets from them snaps them to an uncomfortable new reality: that they were all adopted from Basil House– London’s Oldest Home for Orphaned Infants and Children.

One of the six children is the child of the Countess’s son Thomas, and a serving girl he ran off with. The Countess, suddenly overcome by the need for grandmotherly nurturing plans on determining just who her grandchild is, so they can inherit a large fortune and live with her at Hollingsworth Hall. Permanently. Attended to by her elderly ladies maid, Mary Pettigrew,  left mute by a stroke, the only other person alive that can possibly identify just which child is a DeMoss, the Countesses seemingly charming dinner party turns sinister when Mary ends up dead after a freak power outage.  

That’s when the Clue vibes rain down on the story, and murder mystery becomes the real name of the game. Lawson has a talent for making Hollingsworth Hall dimensional and the characters grow beyond just their starting point tropes of “mean girl”, “smart aleck” and “devout do-gooder” to name just three. Many small details reemerge as concrete plot points. If Tabitha takes a moment to specifically describe it, you can be sure that it’s going to be something that will come back. Jessica Lawson doesn’t waste pretty words to describe just the background scenery. The symbolism behind the Countess’s swan seal is especially brilliant, as are the little clues tucked around her estate in the form of trinkets, oil paintings, and even mere names that are uttered.

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Illustrations accompany the text and the art style is charming and quirky. Its appealing aesthetic reminds me of the animated series Over The Garden Wall. These black and white images do go far in adding some more zest and zing to an already out-of-the-ordinary novel.

The one piece of criticism Nooks & Crannies just can’t dodge is that some of the things in the end seemed a bit too convenient. It’s almost as though it’s tied up just too tidily. Some of the big revelations aren’t so much earth shattering as they are puzzling. They feel entirely different than the carefully crafted set up that led us from point A to points B, C and D. I got the sense that Jessica wanted to spice things up, or throw us readers for a loop, but it left me feeling a bit stunned. I don’t often use the phrase “I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me” but that EXACTLY describes my reaction….and my bum is still kind of smarting from that sudden change in direction. Still, those are just peanuts compared to what is a delightful, heartwarming, and sometimes even spooky story. Nooks & Crannies is no dime-a-dozen McMurder Mystery churned off a conveyer belt. Tabitha Crum, along with her trusty mouse Pemberley and her new friends, is a heroine that is going to stay in my mind for many a year to come.

Images from cover and pages of Nooks & Crannies.

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