In winter 1863, Richard Shenstone, 17, appears without warning at his mother’s new home, a large dilapidated house on the southern coast of England. He has been rusticated, sent down from Cambridge for reasons not immediately explained.
Having received word of his father’s death too late for the funeral, he is surprised to find his mother and sister living in apparent poverty. Furthermore, although he doesn’t at first tell them he’s been sent down, his arrival is met by a surprising lack of welcome, indeed hostility on the part of his sister Effie.
There is some mystery about his father’s death, that is clear. His father’s pension has been denied to the family, and Richard’s mother is suing for her father’s estate as well. Effie is also up to something, for he twice sees her out accompanied only by a tall man, not proper behavior for a lady.
Richard is not a pleasant person, obsessed as he is by desire for every girl or young woman he meets and also addicted to opium. The novel is told as excerpts from his journal, interrupted by copies of a series of hateful letters that soon begin arriving at the homes of various people in the district. It is also clear from the beginning that some crime has been committed and the journal is a look back into the past. It is not clear to readers, however, how reliable a narrator Richard is or what’s going on when he roams the countryside at night in his opiated state. Soon the letter writer begins leaving corpses of mutilated sheep behind him.
This novel is atmospheric in the extreme and completely absorbing. As Richard begins trying to figure out who the letter writer is, he finds the finger pointed toward himself. He takes unwarranted leaps of logic that cause him to make many mistakes and ignores some clues that he has. Still, exasperating and unlikable as the main character is, you are urged along to the end of the novel.