The Curse of Penryth Hall by Jess ArmstrongThe Curse of Penryth Hall by Jess Armstrong
Narrator: Emma Love
Published by Dreamscape Media on December 5, 2023
Source: NetGalley
Genres: Historical Mystery
Length: 10 hrs 40 mins
Pages: 336
Format: Audiobook
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An atmospheric gothic mystery that beautifully brings the ancient Cornish countryside to life, Armstrong introduces heroine Ruby Vaughn in her Minotaur Books & Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award-winning debut, The Curse of Penryth Hall.

After the Great War, American heiress Ruby Vaughn made a life for herself running a rare bookstore alongside her octogenarian employer and house mate in Exeter. She’s always avoided dwelling on the past, even before the war, but it always has a way of finding her. When Ruby is forced to deliver a box of books to a folk healer living deep in the Cornish countryside, she is brought back to the one place she swore she’d never return. A more sensible soul would have delivered the package and left without rehashing old wounds. But no one has ever accused Ruby of being sensible. Thus begins her visit to Penryth Hall.

A foreboding fortress, Penryth Hall is home to Ruby’s once dearest friend, Tamsyn, and her husband, Sir Edward Chenowyth. It’s an unsettling place, and after a more unsettling evening, Ruby is eager to depart. But her plans change when Penryth’s bells ring for the first time in thirty years. Edward is dead; he met a gruesome end in the orchard, and with his death brings whispers of a returned curse. It also brings Ruan Kivell, the person whose books brought her to Cornwall, the one the locals call a Pellar, the man they believe can break the curse. Ruby doesn’t believe in curses—or Pellars—but this is Cornwall and to these villagers the curse is anything but lore, and they believe it will soon claim its next victim: Tamsyn.

To protect her friend, Ruby must work alongside the Pellar to find out what really happened in the orchard that night.

The Curse of Penryth Hall is engrossing. Ruby, our protagonist, is a disgraced heiress living in exile in Exter. There she works for her landlord, Mr. Owen, who sells rare books. Ruby is jaded, drinks too much, and is rather reckless. She’s also generous and stubborn. As the book opens, Mr. Owen sends her with a box of books to a small village in Cornwall. The books, it turns out, are for Ruan Kivell, the town’s Pellar, a wise man/witch/folk healer character. After making her delivery she stops a Penryth Hall to visit Tamsyn, an old friend with whom she has a complicated history. It’s clear at dinner that Tamsyn’s husband is not a good man. The reader is not surprised when he ends up dead the next morning, a victim of “the curse” according to the locals. Ruby doesn’t believe in curses, but she does believe in protecting her friend and uncovering the truth.

Cornwall is a superstitious, suspicious place still recovering from the losses of the Great War. It’s a place where the supernatural can and may exist. It’s vividly drawn and gives the whole book an atmospheric, claustrophobic feel. The Pellar is part of that magic, not all of his skills can be logically explained, as is his connection to Ruby. They are good characters, both strong and not as in control of their emotions as they’d like to be.

The mystery itself was twisty and very character-based. The ending is a bit sad though. I’m hoping we get to join Ruby, and maybe Mr. Owen, on another mystery.

I listened to the audio and the narrator was perfect for the book. She brought Ruby alive with her grief and determination and sense of humor.

About Jess Armstrong

Jess Armstrong’s debut novel The Curse of Penryth Hall won the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur First Crime Novel Competition. She has a masters degree in American History but prefers writing about imaginary people to the real thing. Jess lives in New Orleans with her historian husband, two sons, yellow cat, speckled dog, and the world’s most pampered school-fair goldfish. And when she’s not working on her next project, she’s probably thinking about cheese, baking, tweeting or some combination of the above.


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