Grave Secrets in Goa

Written by Kathleen McCaul — I cannot resist a mystery novel with an exotic location, and Kathleen McCaul certainly has a good grasp of Indian culture and its tensions, having worked as a journalist in India and the Kashmir region. Even by Indian standards, however, Goa is an exceptional island, famed not just for its paradise beaches, but also for its partying and drug-taking culture. The perfect setting for a crime thriller.

The story starts with two decapitations. Not in the gory sense of the word. Instead, it is the decapitation of a Hindu statue of a bull, and the relic of a Christian saint. One of the most interesting opening premises that I have come across in the last year or so.

Ruby Jones is a freelance journalist on holiday in Goa attempting to put behind her the death of a good friend in Delhi. Goa is also the home of one of the best known Christian shrines in Asia: the tomb of St Francis Xavier. The body of this famous – and somewhat controversial – missionary is incorrupt, meaning it is miraculously intact after more than 500 years, and is said to perform miracles. On his Feast Day, however, the head of the saint is stolen in rather dramatic circumstances. Was it retaliation for the head of a bull that was hacked off roughly a day earlier in a Hindu village in the north of the island?

Despite her intention to remain a neutral observer, Ruby becomes embroiled in solving the mystery. Along the way, she befriends the imaginatively named Zim Moon, hopeless son of an American arts dealer, and former nun, Sister Michael, who invites Ruby into her home. A few hours later, Sister Michael is dead, her skull bashed in with one of her precious vases. Ruby is accused of her murder.

To clear her name, and also that of her new friend Zim, Ruby embarks on a wild goose chase around the island.  Under the veneer of romantic beaches, hippy chic and full moon parties, she uncovers a world of smuggling, corruption and deadly rivalry. Ruthless local developers, dodgy priests, art smugglers, even the Russian mafia, are all involved in a plot which keeps us guessing right to the end.

The solution seems somewhat contrived, perhaps because I failed to connect with any of the characters in the book. There were some secondary characters with potential for further development. For instance, Ram, accountant to the rich and powerful, and his Russian mistress Galina. On the whole, however, both the main and the secondary characters were  rather unlikeable and shallow. Their motivations remained a mystery to me, despite their intricate back stories, which I felt at times stood in for more complex characterisation.

This is the second book in the series. Maybe I would have felt more of a connection to Ruby if I’d read the first one as well. Perhaps the author is also trying to convey the aimlessness of Gen Y-ers like Ruby and Zim, even mocking those Westerners who go to India in the hope of finding spiritual enlightenment there. Where the book definitely suceeds is in describing Goa as a fading paradise, overrun by commercialisation and tourists, hiding tensions between the Christian and Hindu communities.

I also feel honour bound to point out that there were a significant number of proofing issues which distracted me somewhat from my enjoyment of the book. At a time when self-published authors are being criticised for careless proofing, I believe that traditional publishers cannot afford to be anything less than perfect, in both paperback and ebook formats.

These quibbles aside, I enjoyed the madcap storyline, the large number of suspects and the atmospheric descriptions of India and Goa. I wonder in what beautiful location Ruby will pop up next.

Piatkus/Hachette
Print/Kindle/iBook
£4.49

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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