Murder at Keyhaven Castle is the third book in Clara McKenna’s Stella and Lyndy mysteries, set in the New Forest area of England in 1905. I had not read the two previous books, but McKenna gives the reader enough background that I had no problem getting into the book, and I enjoyed it so much that it made me want to read the others.
Stella Kendrick is the daughter of a wealthy horse farmer from Kentucky. Her overbearing, social-climbing father, who had never shown her any love, had taken her to England, ostensibly to buy horses, but really to marry her off to Viscount “Lyndy” Lyndhurst. Lyndy’s aristocratic family has lost their fortune. I was never sure exactly why, and that was probably explained in the earlier books, but it is suggested that Lyndy’s father wasted the family’s money. Stella’s father wants the social connections an aristocratic title would bring. Needless to say, neither of the young people was consulted at the time their fathers planned their engagement. Luckily for them, they fall in love with each other, even though Lyndy’s snobbish, traditionally-minded parents disapprove of Stella’s unconventional ways. Stella and Lyndy share a love of horses and, as it turns out, crime solving.
When this book begins, their wedding is just days away, and Stella is being fitted for her wedding dress. The young couple could not be happier. Of course, this won’t last. A variety of guests arrive for the wedding, some invited and some not. One guest is very welcome to Stella: her Aunt Ivy, her late mother’s younger sister, whom she had not seen in years. After Stella’s mother died, her father suddenly and mysteriously forbade her to correspond with Ivy. So Stella is delighted that her aunt accepted her invitation. Then Stella’s father’s estranged brother, her Uncle Jed, shows up uninvited along with his children. Stella is glad to see him after several years, but her father, of course, is not, and the two brothers come to blows. Also, her father’s friends, the Swensons, arrive, and they are less welcome to Stella because she and their daughter, Penny, have hated each other since childhood. The Swensons want to find an aristocratic husband for Penny, and she is immediately taken with Lyndy’s cousin, Sir Owen.
Things go disastrously wrong from the beginning. When Stella and her father go to the Southampton docks to meet the Swensons, they see a man run over by a runaway wagon. It turns out the dead man is an American jockey, Jesse James Prescott, who had come to England after being implicated in a race-fixing scandal at home. The police find a newspaper clipping about Stella’s and Lyndy’s wedding in the dead man’s pocket, and, just before his death, witnesses had heard him threatening to kill someone at Lyndy’s home, Morrington Hall. But Prescott’s pistol, which he had always carried, is missing, and Stella and Lyndy don’t know why he would want to kill one of the guests. Stella is afraid, though, that the threat is not over, and that either Lyndy or her father might be the intended victim. They learn soon enough that the jockey’s death was no accident, and someone pushed him into the path of the wagon.
Then, during an outing to the nearby Keyhaven Castle, someone close to Stella is murdered. It would be a spoiler to say who the victim is, but this death devastates Stella, and causes the wedding to be postponed. Stella and Lyndy love each other as much as ever, but Lyndy’s mother insists they wait for propriety’s sake. Lyndy’s cousin, Sir Owen, is implicated in the murder because he was found with blood on him, near the body, but he had no motive, and Stella and Lyndy are certain he is innocent. Stella knows that, since Sir Owen is not the killer, it must be one of her guests. It soon emerges that the two murders are connected, and that it all goes back to the race-fixing scandal. To say any more, of course, would spoil things, but Stella faces plenty of danger before she and Lyndy finally solve the murder. Then there is the family secret that Stella’s father and Aunt Ivy argue about just before the excursion to Keyhaven Castle. This, too, is resolved, even though it was easier for me to figure out than who the murderer was.
This is a delightful, thoroughly enjoyable book, with an attractive young couple as protagonists. Stella is a strong heroine, determined to solve the murders and to go ahead with her wedding, in spite of the tremendous loss she experiences. Solving the crime will bring closure to her. She is an excellent horsewoman, which comes into play in this book, and her beloved mare Tully is as important a character as any of the people. Lyndy is also a wonderful character, loving and supportive of Stella, every step of the way. The reader will find out what his first name is in this book. I gather that it was never given in either of the previous books. McKenna gives excellent descriptions of the New Forest area, a place that is not often seen in mysteries, and she makes the reader want to go there. Keyhaven Castle, where the second murder happens, is appropriately mysterious. It is fictitious, but based on a real castle in the area, built after Henry VIII closed the monasteries, with stones from an abbey that once stood nearby. McKenna also does a great job describing the marshy lands near the castle and the wild ponies for which the area is well known. I highly recommend Murder at Keyhaven Castle, and I am looking forward to more adventures of Stella and Lyndy, as well as reading their first two.
Vicki Kondelik is a cataloger at the University of Michigan’s Graduate Library, and edits their book review blog, Lost in the Stacks. She writes book reviews for the Historical Novel Society, and is currently writing a historical novel. She has been an avid mystery reader for a long time.