Sometimes one needs a little mystery, and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell rarely disappoints. Asta’s Book was just what I was looking for — a murder, a missing person, mistaken identity, and modern-day characters trying to sift out the truth from the family history.
The primary narrator is Ann Eastbrook, granddaughter of Asta Westerby. The title Asta’s Book refers to a collection of diaries that Asta wrote starting in 1905 when she was a new immigrant to London from Denmark. In 1905, she was still learning English and so she kept her diaries in Danish. She has two sons and is pregnant, hoping for a girl. Asta kept her diaries until her death in 1968. Curiously, none of her children or husband knew of her diaries until after she died, when her daughter Swanny found them, recognized their literary value and had them published. Asta’s Book became a runaway best seller, with several volumes in print and more to come. When Swanny dies in 1988 at the age of 83, her niece Ann inherits the rights to Asta’s diaries.
The narration switches back and forth between Asta’s diary entries, events in Swanny’s life in the 1960s and Ann’s situation in 1988. Ann, as custodian of the diaries, is approached by news outlets, relatives and a former friend regarding the diaries and their contents. As a result, she is drawn into an investigation of an unsolved murder and missing persons case from 1905. She is also drawn into a family mystery regarding Swanny’s origins.
It’s a fine mystery with unexpected twists and admirable attention to historical details. The character Asta is as fascinating to the reader of this mystery as she is to the fictional readers of the diaries. She is a smart woman, dissatisfied with her marriage and often brutal and heartless to those around her, particularly her husband Rasmus and maid Hansine. Outwardly, Asta played by society’s rules. But inwardly, through the diaries in Danish that she expected no one to read, she expressed derision and pessimism about the individuals and events that were part of her life. This is a good choice for the murder mystery crowd.