Book Review: The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis
By Angie BarryFebruary 19, 2021
The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis is the second book in the Brontë Sisters Mystery series, where the bones of a child are found bricked up in an abandoned fireplace, and the famous sisters must investigate before more get hurt.
The Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—are eagerly anticipating word from their publisher on whether or not their book of collected poems will be printed. With Christmas quickly approaching and their brother, Branwell, still in a depressed and drunken mood following an ill-advised affair with a married woman, the sisters have plenty on their hands.
But the Universe is about to put a much heavier weight upon them: just across the moor, in the dilapidated manor house of Top Withens, the bones of a child have been discovered bricked up in an abandoned fireplace.
The entire town of Haworth is more than happy to blame Top Withens’s master, Clifton Bradshaw. Bradshaw is known to be a black-hearted and ill-tempered beast of a man, a suspected devil-worshipper and hedonist. His grown son, Liston, turns to the Brontës for help in clearing the Bradshaw name and identifying the unfortunate victim.
“This were round its neck,” he said, delivering it into Emily’s hands.
Emily frowned at the object that lay lightly in her palm.
“A medallion,” she told her sisters as she closely examined the object under candlelight. “Here on the front an engraving of the Virgin Mary, and the date eighteen thirty. And on the back these symbols and stars, and another date that appears to be roughly etched: eighteen thirty-two. Here.” She moved her palm around for all to see.
“Eighteen thirty-two is but thirteen years ago,” Anne said. “The child was placed here much more recently than we assumed.”
“Well within living memory,” Charlotte added.
“It was the year my mother died,” Liston said heavily. “The year my father locked away this room and all the secrets it contained. Do you suppose…? No, I cannot say it aloud.”
“Say what aloud, Liston?” Emily asked him.
“That my father may have known that the bones were interred within this room?”
Liston looked so lost, so afraid that he might be speaking the truth, that Emily wished she was able to reassure him. She was not, however.
“We cannot know,” Emily said. “At least not yet, Liston. But my family has a knack for detecting the truth, no matter how well it might be hidden.” She looked in turn at all gathered there as she spoke. “From this moment on, we must assume the circumstances of this child’s death to be most heinous and wicked. And regard this room as the scene of a murder.”
What seems, at first, to be clear-cut and obvious—who else but Bradshaw would be able to hide a murder at Top Withens for so long?—quickly becomes muddied and ominous. The more the Brontës dig, the more frightening and confusing the clues they uncover: arcane symbols, perverted Catholic charms, and a history of dark sacrifice emerge.
Soon, the young writers-turned-detectors are confronted with witches, madness, and settings that could’ve been ripped from the Gothic pages of their own imaginations. And they must get to the bottom of things fast; with the disappearance of another young boy, tensions are rising. If they don’t catch the culprit, their town will dissolve into yet another witch hunt, and the pile of diabolical bones will only grow.
With her second installment in her Brontë Sisters series, Ellis continues to weave the biographical facts of the famous family with thrilling fiction. Historical locales and peoples—including the improbably named Zerubbabel Barraclough—ground the more Gothic flourishes, and Ellis clearly has fun alluding to possible inspirations for the ladies’ classic novels.
That’s certainly one of the greatest draws to this series; Brontë fans will enjoy catching all of the Easter eggs for Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The colorful characterizations of the sisters (and their ne’er-do-well brother) are also entertaining. As to be expected, Emily is the wild child of the family, Charlotte the emotional one, and Anne the quiet and thoughtful glue holding everyone together who sometimes feels diminished compared to her more vibrant siblings.
“It’s different for you and Charlotte,” Anne said. “Both of you have a gift for creating worlds out of words—whole landscapes of emotion. I fear that all I have is myself, my own thoughts and feelings, regrets and hopes that are so very small and ordinary. How can that ever be considered to have any literary merit?”
“Why wouldn’t your honest and true reflections have merit equal to any words ever written by anyone?” Emily asked. “What greater merit is there than the communication of the experience of one human soul to another? In this world of men, the literary types seek to elevate themselves above the ordinary. Their thoughts must be superior, their feelings more important than yours or mine. It’s all artifice, Anne. Your thoughts, your feelings, your sentiment, as you put it, will ring true with those who read it. They will see honesty and integrity, and though you may never know their names, you and they will be connected somehow, not only now but for all of time. Besides, if I am honest, it is you who have the greatest courage of us all, you who speak the truth and will not flinch from it.”
“Perhaps if that is so, it will be enough.”
“Besides, we don’t write for accolades.” Emily thought for a moment. “We write because our souls demand it of us, and that is enough.”
The Diabolical Bones is told through perspective chapters that alternate between the sisters, ensuring everyone gets moments of introspection and moments to shine. The winter setting provides both nostalgic holiday flourishes and a bleak, chilling backdrop for some truly nefarious goings-on.
Ellis packs a lot into this mystery, moving her heroines like chess pieces as they pursue each clue and painting vivid descriptions of snowy moors, decaying manors, and dark caves. Plenty of space is devoted to the Brontës’ familial relationships, religious sentiments, and hopes for their creative careers, and intertwined with the core whodunit is commentary on class, poverty, bigotry, and misogyny.
Ellis is working with some heavy material and very hallowed figures but handles it all with a fairly light touch that makes for easy, quick reading. There are some dark details in The Diabolical Bones, but overall, it’s still more of a cozy yarn than a true thriller—and a perfect fit for the current cold snap this winter. Given the short timeframe left to work with—this story takes place in 1845, and Branwell, Emily, and Anne are all dead by May of 1849—it will be interesting to see just how many more mysteries Ellis can squeeze into this series. Hopefully, the next will be even more exciting and fantastical.