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Death Notes by Sarah Rayne

January 3, 2017


Death Notes is the first in a new series by Sarah Rayne featuring Phineas Fox.

Phineas Fox is a music historian and researcher.  When a television company asks him to research the life of a famous and charismatic Russian violinist from the late 1800s, he is reluctant to take it on knowing that the violinist in question had been hanged for murder.  But Phin has a new flat in an old house to work on and a lot of soundproofing to pay for, so needs must.

Roman Volf had been a virtuoso violinist with a glittering life, a well-known womaniser who was executed for his part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1888. He died protesting his innocence.

Starting his investigation into Volf’s life, Phin finds that the principal source for knowledge of Volf and his work is a journalist called Feofil Markov.

After Volf’s execution, Markov predicted that: ‘The dark and suffocating web of tragedy that wove itself around the last months of Roman Volf’s life, would trap his descendants for many years into the future…’

Phin finds an old book with an unlikely photo of Volf which brings Phin to begin to consider the somewhat startling revelation that Volf may have been innocent and it is this photo that really kickstarts his quest to find out more about his life.

Meanwhile, Mortimer Quince, Roman’s illegitimate son – a music-hall performer, is also trying to find out more about his infamous father. Quince suffers from recurring nightmares and knows that they will persist unless he gets to the bottom of what really happened to his father. He is convinced he retains a memory of his father’s last performance and it drives him to continue his quest.

Following a trail left by Quince, Phin travels to the small village of Kilcarne on Ireland’s west coast.

There we meet Beatrice Drury, who owns a remote cottage named Tromloy (meaning nightmare) whose daughter, Abigail, and husband, died two years ago. She won’t visit the cottage, but we learn that there are strange happenings there.

There are many, quite complex, threads in this novel which weaves Phin’s research into Volf and Bea’s story together, along with diary entries from Mortimer Quince and the stories of two other characters – Jessica Cullen and Maxim.

This is an unusual story, full of mystery and intrigue and I really like the way that Rayne has merged past and present mysteries. I’d have appreciated understanding a little more of Phin’s character, but there’s enough here to warrant a return to book two.

Overall an enjoyable and satisfying read.


Death Notes was published by Severn House  on 26 December 2016

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