Source: Review copy
Publication: 19 August 2021 from Mantle
My thanks to Mantle for an early copy for review.
The case is unexceptional, that is what I know. A house full of stuff left behind by a dead woman, abandoned at the last . . .
When trauma cleaner Essie Pound makes a gruesome discovery in the derelict Edinburgh boarding house she is sent to clean, it brings her into contact with a young policewoman, Emily Noble, who has her own reasons to solve the case.
As the two women embark on a journey into the heart of a forgotten family, the investigation prompts fragmented memories of their own traumatic histories – something Emily has spent a lifetime attempting to bury, and Essie a lifetime trying to lay bare.
This is the third in a Mary Paulson Ellis’ series of books about people who die without leaving any heirs to deal with the estate. You can absolutely read this as a stand-alone.
Emily Noble’s Disgrace is a beautifully written, deep dive into the history of a house and the objects that mattered to the people who have lived in it. It is an oft times sad story about families and relationships and the secrets they hide as well as the lies they tell.
It is also the story of Essie, a trauma cleaner and Emily, a Police Constable. Told in an almost leisurely fashion, this time shifting book takes its own time to reveal what has really gone on in this now decrepit house in Portobello where the owner, Isabella Dawson has just died. Well, I say just – in fact she has been dead for a while, but her body has only recently been discovered.
Isabella was a hoarder and it is up to Essie and her colleagues from the trauma scene cleaning team to clear and clean the house to make it ready for whatever is to happen to it next.
Emily is a lonely creature, not liked by her colleagues. She is hiding from her past – keeping it locked away in a box in her mind, never once turning the key. Essie is very different. She is desperate to find out more about her own past but all she is given is a big, fat, heavily redacted file which tells her next to nothing.
For both them, visiting this house in the course of their respective duties, they will find things to trouble them and things to awaken those long buried memories – or at least fragments of them.
Shifting back and forwards in history, Mary Paulson Ellis has crafted an intense and pulsing set of mysteries which touch on moments of real trauma and heartbreak. Through it all, the house in Portobello slowly gives up its secrets as we find the stories from the booming days of Portobello as a much loved seaside town to the grimmer times when folk wanted to go further afield and poor old Porty just fell out of fashion.
If you have read the other books in this group, you will find some familiar characters referred to, but it’s not necessary, as no prior knowledge of them is required. I did, though, giggle at the names of the owners of the cleaning company.
At times quite a discomfiting read, there is an uncomfortable series of truths to be found in these pages and Paulson Ellis draws them out as if they were silk stockings coming out the packet for the first time. Some characters stand out as bright and electric; others are more shaded as their secrets have yet to be divulged, but together they present a compelling and interesting story with a heart of darkness that touches the core.
Verdict: This is a house where strange and frightening events have taken place and Mary Paulson Ellis makes her gothic story pulsate with life as she leads us into the dark and dusty interiors of the fly encrusted dwelling. Sometimes a difficult read because of the emotional impact, the prose is beguiling and I really liked it.
Mary Paulson Ellis lives in Edinburgh, Scotland where she writes dual-timeline detective novels about the world of those who die with no next of kin. Her debut novel, The Other Mrs Walker was a Times bestseller and Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year. The second, The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing was long-listed for the McIlvanney Prize for best Scottish crime novel and a Historical Writers Association Gold Crown. in 2019 she was selected by Val McDermid as one of the UK’s ten most compelling LGBTQI+ writers working today. Her short stories and non-fiction have featured on BBC Radio 4 and in the Guardian Weekend Magazine, as well as various anthologies. She has worked as a script-editor, arts administrator and tour guide. From 2010-2014 she was Writer in Residence at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, on behalf of the Edinburgh International Festival, and she has taught creative writing for other organisations including the National Galleries of Scotland.
Photo: c. Chris Scott