Cassandra James is shocked when her friend, retired academic Una Carwardine, is found dead in her home. She’s horrified to discover that Una had been thrown down a staircase by an intruder. When Cassandra is told that the strange, silent phone call she received on a chaotic evening was Una’s last call, she is determined to find out why Una rang her & what she wanted her to do.She also feels guilty that her increasingly busy life – head of the English Department at St Etheldreda’s, life with Stephen & their daughter, Grace, & work on her book – had meant that she saw Una much less often than she had in the past.
Una & her husband were academics specialising in 19th century literature, Cassandra’s own field. Cassandra is spending her study leave writing a book, using the collection of the Cambridge Literary & Philosophical Institute (usually known as the Lit & Phil). She’s surprised & honoured to be invited to join the Institute’s Board by head librarian, Giles Brayfield. Una had planned to leave her vast & valuable collection of 19th century literature to the Institute along with a bequest that would enable the Board to buy back the lease on a prominently sited building that they desperately need for storage & as a way of raising the Institute’s profile. Giles is determined to drag the Institute & its collection into the modern age – putting the catalogue online is just the beginning – but there’s a shock in store when Una’s will is read & the bequest is instead left to St Ethedreda’s. Then, as the lawyers delve into Una’s estate, the money to store the collection is missing. Una seems to have spent over half a million pounds in the last months of her life. How could she have spent so much money & what did she buy?
Footfall is a terrifically twisty murder mystery & I’m only sorry that it’s the last in the Cassandra James series. As always, I loved the setting – academic Cambridge with its libraries, bookshops & impoverished students trying to make ends meet. Bookselling, especially the rare book trade, is brought into the story by Cassandra’s meeting with Giles Brayfield’s friend, Eileen Burnham. Eileen tempts Cassandra with copies of the 19th century sensation novels she loves & also gives her some vital clues about what Una was up to at the end of her life. Cassandra’s personal life is also as complicated as ever. Stephen catches chicken pox & takes Grace off to visit his sister in Devon while he recuperates, leaving Cassandra at a loose end, revelling in the freedom of being on her own but also anxious & a little bereft. There’s more than enough to make Cassandra anxious. Apart from Una’s death & the mystery of her estate, odd things have been happening at Grace’s nursery – objects appearing & disappearing. Then, there’s a woman posing as Cassandra, copying her hairstyle & even sitting at her desk at the Lit & Phil. What could her motive be & could she have any connection with Una’s death? Then, there are Cassandra’s unresolved feelings for Superintendent Jim Ferguson. Jim is investigating Una’s death & Cassandra is drawn into the investigation not only because of her relationship with Una but because of her knowledge of books.
The many subplots keep the action moving along & Cassandra’s frantic juggling of work, motherhood & marriage rings true. Even the infrequent moments of calm when she can concentrate on her book are haunted by a looming deadline & the thought of the work waiting for her at St Etheldreda’s at the end of her study leave. All in all, this is a very enjoyable series. I definitely won’t be waiting another 15 years to reread it. I now have them all safely on my Kindle so I can revisit Cambridge & Cassandra whenever I need a dose of academic mystery.