The Secret Rooms

In her new paperback, The Secret Rooms, CATHERINE BAILEY brings a royal mystery to life.

When historian Catherine Bailey set out to visit the Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, England, she thought she’d be writing a book about the castle and its estate’s “Lost Generation” — the farmers and blacksmiths and servants from the estate’s 30 villages who served and died during World War I. She chose Belvoir because the ninth Duke of Rutland, who died in 1940, had spent most of his adult life after serving in World War I curating and preserving family documents and estate records dating back centuries.

What she found, however, was that chunks of information from the duke’s service in the war were missing. There were no letters and no diaries, which she found odd for someone who was almost obsessive about keeping records. The mystery deepened when she learned that the duke had died in the dank rooms where the records were held.

What follows in The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret (Penguin, $16) is Bailey’s hunt to figure out what was missing — from both World War I and another gap in the duke’s childhood history — and why, as she eventually found, the duke stuck to those rooms in the last weeks and days of his life, burning correspondence.

Already a sensation in England, The Secret Rooms reads like a mystery novel but is 100 percent true. Bailey recounts both her sleuthing, which involved pouring through records on the estate to try to find letters the duke might have missed, and traveling across England to find who might have been on the other end of such correspondence. She also recreates, in vivid detail, the episodes from both the duke’s childhood and World War I — the same era and setting that has made Downton Abbey so popular on both sides of the Atlantic (Belvoir is even located near Grantham).

With the help of the current Duke and Duchess of Rutland, who cooperated despite the possibility of revealing damaging or shameful family secrets, Bailey has solved a mystery and written about it as the real-life thriller it is.