1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the town where she grew up and where her brother Matthew still lives. But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew is changed. As whispers of witchcraft spread through the town, rumours spread that Matthew is keeping a book in which he is gathering guilty women’s names.
This book is based on the true story of self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins – though whether or not he had a sister in real life is unknown. It tells the story of a bizarre time in England’s history, when accusations of witchcraft were taken seriously and many lost their lives after accusations got out of hand.
The problem with this book is clear in the title. We don’t experience the events through the Witchfinder himself – nor through any of the witches who are accused – but through a woman who really has no part to play in the story. She spends most of the book listening at doors, overhearing conversations and watching events unfold while taking no part in them herself.
Because Alice is so far removed from the action Underdown fails to create enough excitement to really compel you to keep reading. Alice keeps repeating her desire to find a way to stop Matthew and make him see reason, but she fails to actually step up and do so. As such, she doesn’t actually do very much, and is a fairly bland and uninteresting character overall.
Underdown’s attempts to provide reasons for Matthew’s behaviour fail to ring true. It makes no sense that the feeble reasons she provides – mainly that he was made fun of and rejected as a child – would provoke such an extreme reaction. If she had made the confident decision to leave him as a mystery, without resorting to an easy explanation for his actions, it would have been more believable.
There are flashes of really good writing here and it’s unfortunate that Underdown hasn’t managed to carry it through the whole book. There are moments when she creates a truly compelling, chilling atmosphere, and towards the end of the book the pace really picks up; it’s just a shame that it takes so long to get there.
The novel has its pros, and if you are interested in Matthew Hopkins and this period of history you will no doubt enjoy it, but it fell flat for me.