Written by Andrea Carter — Despite the moody cover art and threatening title, this novel falls squarely in cosy crime territory, although with a grittier edge than some of its American cousins in the sub-genre. Set on the Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland, about as far north as you can go on the island, it makes the most of its picturesque setting and small town feel.
Benedicta ‘Ben’ O’Keeffe is the amateur detective of the tale. She’s also the local solicitor, which gives her instant access to some of the most private affairs of the inhabitants in the community. Marguerite is a French woman and yoga instructor, who comes to Ben and asks her to draw out her will. It’s a strange request, because she actually has very little to leave behind and only one daughter, albeit estranged. Before she has time to sign the document, Marguerite’s body is discovered on a remote beach.
The police are quick to label it the suicide of a lonely woman, but Ben doesn’t accept that assessment and feels that the Frenchwoman’s last visit to her was a disguised call for help. She continues to dig into Marguerite’s past and finds out that 20 years earlier the victim escaped from a doomsday cult, but had to leave her infant daughter behind. With patient questioning of the largely indifferent neighbours and members of the community, Ben pieces together the story of Marguerite’s life and works out who might have wanted to harm her.
The storytelling hinges on these conversations and personal deductions, rather than any action or violence. We get to meet the diverse and often quirky characters of a closed community, where Ben is still treated as a ‘blow-in’ even after seven years living there. This outsider status does not endear her to the locals, but helps her maintain objectivity as she goes about her investigation, despite the fact that she finds herself attracted to Marguerite’s neighbour, a Scottish sculptor called Simon. But does Simon know more than he lets on and why does his son seek to warn her of his father’s selfish behaviour?
Ben proves to be a compassionate and inquisitive character, a bit of a stickler for detail and proper procedures as befits a solicitor. The legal detail involved gets repetitive, and Ben’s relationship to the guardai is only vaguely sketched out in this book. She also has some unresolved issues of her own, which are hinted at in this book, but may have been treated in more depth in the first book in the series, Death at Whitewater Church. The remoteness and foreboding beauty of the region have provided both Ben and Marguerite with refuge when they were running away from their pasts, ultimately it proves to be a lonely and unforgiving region. There are plenty of motives and suspicions locally, but there is also the additional complication of Marguerite’s past life as a cult member.
The Children of Damascus cult is clearly modelled on new religious movements such as The Children of God (with the accusations levied against them of physical and sexual abuse of children) and the Order of the Solar Temple with their group suicides in the mid 1990s. These headline-grabbing aspects of cult life are of course easily incorporated into crime fiction. However, to her credit, the author manages to convey a slightly more nuanced picture of the characters and their motives. It provides an interesting additional strand to the story, without diverting too much from the local investigation.
This book will appeal to readers looking for a cosier alternative to the often dark Irish crime fiction or for MC Beaton fans looking for a new atmospheric setting.
Check out our crime novels from the Celtic fringe or take a road trip through Irish crime. Another solicitor who pokes the remote corners of a remote island is Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Thora Gudmundsdottir.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars