Book Review: Death at High Tide by Hannah Dennison
By Angie BarryAugust 17, 2020
Evie Mead has had a rough week. Her beloved husband Robert has died suddenly. His lawyer informs her that his fortune has disappeared via bad investments. And she discovers that all that may be left is a hotel on the remote Tregarrick Rock, off the English coast.
All Evie wants to do is hide away and grieve, but her brash sister, Hollywood producer Margot, instead drags her to the Scilly Isles to take stock of her inheritance.
What the sisters find is a far cry from the palatial spa resort Margot had imagined. The hotel may have beautiful Art Deco bones, but the interior is an unfortunate mishmash straight out of the shag carpeted 70’s, and there’s a haunting and chilly air about it thanks to the November, off-season storms.
The place is also extremely remote due to the treacherous reefs and tides, and the on-site staff is a curious—even unsettling—bunch.
“Vanessa makes an excellent apple-and-blackberry crumble,” Lily declared. “You know, she learned to cook in prison. Got some fancy catering qualification.”
“Oops.” Lily clapped her hand over her mouth. “I shouldn’t have said that. No one is supposed to know.”
Lily cocked her head and waited for me to ask the inevitable question, but I was determined not to.
“It was in all the newspapers,” she said slyly.
“As you said, I’m not supposed to know.”
Lily leaned over and said in a low voice, “Aren’t you curious as to what she did?”
“Not at all.” I took a sip of ice water. Of course I was curious! But I definitely didn’t want to open up that kind of conversation with Lily.
“She bought a prosthetic one on Amazon. It would never have fooled me, but apparently the doctors were taken in for quite some time…”
Then there’s the family who has owned Tregarrick Rock for generations. The current patriarch, Jago Ferris, is cruel and spiteful, possessive of his beautiful wife Tegan and dismissive of his grown son Cador. He insists that his debt to Evie’s husband was repaid years ago and that she has no claim on his hotel—but if that’s true, where is the receipt? Why was there no record of the huge transaction in Robert’s accounts?
With a storm and high tide stranding the sisters at the hotel with a cast of colorful characters who aren’t entirely welcoming, and with the sisters themselves keeping secrets from one another, the stage is set for some nefarious acts…
“The path has crumbled away. You were very lucky.”
“I know,” I whispered.
Dennis moved closer to the edge. “Do you want to see just how far down it is?”
“Please,” I begged. “Just let me go back to the hotel. I believe you.”
“It’s a sheer drop of about seventy-five feet. All the way down to the—” He suddenly froze. “Oh no. Oh God.”
His voice sounded strange. It was high-pitched and stilted.
My stomach turned over. Panic rose in my chest. “What’s the matter? What’s wrong? What is it?”
“Stand back,” he said harshly, but this time I didn’t. I took his flashlight and gingerly stepped forward to look into the abyss.
Heart in mouth, I swung the beam down and saw what looked like a pile of rags on the beach at the bottom of the cliff. “Oh God,” I whispered. “Who is it…?”
Death at High Tide is the first in a new series, so plenty of time is devoted to setting up the protagonist sisters, Evie and Margot, as well as the unusual setting. This means it takes Dennison fully half of the book before she gets to the murder(s) and higher stakes drama; Death is more of a slow-burn story than a ripping page-turner.
For some, yours truly included, the back cover synopsis may feel slightly misleading in retrospect; if you pick this up expecting something with more of a Gothic romance/suspense vibe, you’ll probably be disappointed. Not to say Death is a bad mystery—just that it’s not quite as advertised. There are Gothic flourishes, particularly in the descriptions of Tregarrick:
It was eerily quiet.
The Galleon Garden was peppered with figureheads displayed in clipped box hedges alcoves. There had to be dozens, ranging from golden tigers to Neptune from the sea. A light mist had begun to roll in, creating the sinister impression that the figureheads were still riding the prows of their ships. I felt a shiver of foreboding and the distinct feeling that I was being watched…
But, ultimately, the story is relatively straightforward and dialogue-heavy, with most of the plot delivered via long conversations and confessions. Evie and Margot are, as to be expected, the most developed characters, with the former acting as our first-person narrator. The rest of the cast is dominated by unlikeable people, and while this means we’re not too upset or surprised when bad things happen/are revealed about them, it also means we don’t care too much about what happens to anyone beyond the sisters. It’s hard to invest in this supporting cast.
However, that’s not necessarily a damning fault. Dennison is setting up a series that, presumably, will stretch into several books. It’s the nature of the beast that many of the folks introduced here won’t appear in later installments, and so they don’t have to be all that well-developed or likable. So long as you look at them as plot points or window dressing, the core story built around Evie and Margot remains interesting enough to follow through to the end (and perhaps beyond, into the next book).
Dennison does a fine job of tantalizing us with references and allusions, slowly unwrapping the full layers of the many mysteries: the hotel’s ownership, the murders, the nature of Evie and Robert’s relationship (and of Margot’s with her husband), various personal secrets and lies and characters’ pasts. She baits her hook and then pulls us into deeper water in steady increments, and the climactic revelations are solid ones, though canny readers will probably correctly guess some of the details.
All in all, Death at High Tide is a solid story. A mystery with a minimum of on-screen violence or gore and—though there’s a little bit of scandal—no sex, either, making it suitable for just about anyone. Hopefully, Dennison will lean more into the history and evocative setting in future installments of this series, and let Evie and Margot grow in intriguing ways.