The Secret of the Chateau
Caroline Farr | Signet Books | 1967 | 128 pages
“You!” I ejaculated in English, “are the most . . . !”
“You,” I managed, “are the most insufferable . . . !”
When our young heroine, Denise Gérard, sputters out these words to Etienne Métier, a roguishly good-looking man she meets after a near-deadly encounter on lands owned by her uncle, little doubt exists that they will soon kiss, and within a hundred or so pages, be married. This overt telegraphing of direction characterizes all aspects of The Secret of the Chateau, a perfectly serviceable gothic thriller that holds virtually no surprises from start to finish.
Denise leaves her home in New Orleans following the death of her grandfather, traveling to the Châtaigneraie region of France at the bequest of Maurice Gérard, an uncle she has never met. The reclusive Maurice, a former war hero from the time of the French Resistance, desires to re-establish contact with his last surviving family member. He advances her a large sum of money to visit him at his manor, the Château-Les-Vautours, a massive bulk that reminds Denise of a prison.
Denise discovers Maurice to be a moody figure, wearing a black velvet mask to cover the extensive burns on his face received during the war, and a metal prosthetic in place of his missing right hand. She is shocked by his casual cruelty when she witness him shooting pigeons, slowed after consuming a scattering of drugged seeds on the grounds of the estate, their remains ostensibly left to feed the manor’s namesake vultures. His surly, masculine housekeeper, Gabrielle, and heavy-set chauffeur, Albert, display a barely concealed contempt for Denise, and exert an unusual hold over Maurice, seemingly out of place for their role as servants.
Warned not to travel to the village alone, Denise learns of a series of strange disappearances involving young women. The countryside takes on an additional sense of menace after Denise encounters Etienne, one of Maurice’s tenants on the estate’s farmland. Etienne immediately confides his true identity to her by declaring outright, “I am an agent of the French government,” and expressing his theory that an infamous German war criminal is currently hiding in the region.
All the story elements fall exactly into their prescribed places, but The [Not-So] Secret of the Chateau harbors enough of the requisite baroque trappings—a gloomy estate, a disfigured lord in a velvet mask, a group of suspicious servants, vultures ominously circling around a spot inside the forest, and a brooding mystery involving the young women of the village—to potentially provide some gothic comfort food for the inclined reader.
***Spoiler Alert*** The only real surprise came when Gabrielle was NOT ultimately revealed to be a man in disguise—just big hands, apparently. ***End Spoiler***