Holkham Hall in Norfolk was a large base for the army during the Second World War. The protagonist in A Haunting at Holkham is Lady Anne Coke, the daughter of the 5th Earl of Leicester. Her parents were abroad serving in the war as Scots Guards. Growing up on the large estate, Lady Anne’s days were filled with as many activities as they were hunting the ghosts in her imagination. That was until her governess arrived, and her abusive nature made Lady Anne’s life miserable.
In present time, when the novel begins, Lady Anne is called back from a business trip at the sudden and unfortunate death of her grandfather. Upset and curious, she finds out that the late Earl has been found dead with a valuable piece of heirloom jewellery in his pocket. Anne is determined to find out what really happened and does not buy the popular opinion of the staff – that the resident ghost at Holkham, Lady Mary, was somehow involved. Anne must go back to the memories of her abused past to uncover the mystery of the present.
This is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Lady Anne Glenconner, who did herself grow up at Holkham. She has drawn on her own experiences and embellished a few events to create this novel. She grew up to serve as lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, who briefly features in the novel too. The personal experience is evident in the detail of Holkham, a huge house with a large estate and grounds. It takes on the warmth of a welcoming family home on the eve of Anne’s debutante ball. But in her memories, she is also haunted by its sinister and foreboding presence. Lady Glenconner’s intimate knowledge of Holkham shines through.
However, when Lady Anne’s grandfather dies, she herself is only in her late teens. This lends an air of an unreliable narrator to the story. It takes away from the grief that she is no doubt feeling, and puts a sharper lens on the confusion. This is a tradeoff that the author makes, as she is faithful to the true timeline of events.
Despite that, it is a good crime read from someone with first-hand knowledge of the innermost workings of the British upper class. The author does away with the predictability of unnecessary attractions and romance that plague books with young heroines. And in doing so, leaves the reader with an enjoyable winter read to be savoured over the upcoming holiday season.