The ninth adventure in the Cait Morgan series, The Corpse with the Crystal Skull, sees the Welsh-Canadian criminology professor heading to Jamaica with her husband and friends for her 50th birthday celebrations. As you probably already know, whether it’s a small English village or an island in the Caribbean, whenever a sleuth turns up somewhere in a cosy mystery bodies start piling up.
In this case the first victim is the proprietor of the Captain’s Lookout Estate where Cait and company are spending their month-long vacation. Eccentric 80-year-old Freddie Burkinshaw is found dead locked in his tower room, a historic structure built in the late 1600s by Sir Henry Morgan when he was lieutenant governor of Jamaica. With no way in or out of the tower without a key, Freddie’s death is ruled as a suicide. Bizarrely Freddie didn’t seem suicidal during the group’s heavy celebrations the previous evening. On the contrary, he was the life of the party.
Through Cait’s first person narrative, her astute observations and scrupulous questioning we are drawn into solving the mysterious death of the infamous Freddie Burkinshaw. Cait isn’t your typical amateur sleuth; she has some criminal experience. Nonetheless, she tries to solve murders without the assistance of the authorities. Bud, her ex-cop husband, frequently acts as a sounding board for her seemingly far-fetched theories. When a second murder is committed and Wilson Thomas, a homeless man, is found dead on the beach, Bud and friends Jack and John have to come clean about the real reason for their visit to Jamaica. Cait’s birthday celebration getaway was merely a ruse to distract from the trio’s mission to retrieve critical government documents and Wilson Thomas was their local contact.
Straight away everyone is a suspect, from Sheila White, Jack’s wife to Lottie, John Silver’s young and seemingly superficial girlfriend. Both have motives for disposing of Freddie, as does Nina Mazzo, the disgruntled, ageing Italian actress neighbour and her slippery realtor Nial Jackson, who both could have benefited from his demise.
Cait has a sharp, perceptive eye, but clearly lacks people skills. She is focused on solving the crime, not cementing personal relationships, even with close friends. Sheila appears to be an easy-going homebody, but she hides a painful past connected to the island. Charlotte Fortescue, or Lottie to her friends, is the outsider who is involved with the much older Jack White and has family in the British government. She frequently gets under Cait’s skin and is often on the receiving end of Cait’s sharp tongue. Amelia LaBadie has been looking after Freddie and the estate for over 45 years and was to be financially supported after his death. Amelia and her grandson Tarone Thomas, who also lives on the estate, were expecting to be the sole beneficiaries of Freddie’s will, only this doesn’t happen.
While the suspects are confined to the estate, the covers are slowly lifted to reveal their pasts and secrets. Despite Cait’s meticulous sleuthing and the multitude of suspects with motives, she gets no closer to solving the murders. Of course, this does not stop her from trying and she frequently acts like a grown-up Nancy Drew carried away by haphazard theories. In fact, there are multiple references to Nancy Drew books, as well as Enid Blyton’s classic adventures stories, so perhaps they served as inspiration for Ace. James Bond and Ian Fleming’s association with Jamaica are also referred to on many occasions, one can argue maybe too often.
Eventually it comes to light that Freddie somehow found the means to collect fine and rare artefacts, including the sought after crystal skull, an object which, according to local myth, gifted its owner with power. Could Freddie have found Captain Henry Morgan’s pirate treasure on the estate grounds and could he have been killed for it?
Ace excels at creating a sense of place in her books and it plays a substantial part in their success. Having travelled extensively she puts her experiences and knowledge of different countries and cultures to good use. In The Corpse with the Crystal Skull we are treated to Caribbean cuisine and even a dip into some history. It contains all the essential elements of a cozy novel – an idyllic location, a locked room murder and a light-hearted and sometimes humorous touch. The final scene and conclusion pays homage to one of Ace’s favourite authors, Agatha Christie, by utilising a classic murder mystery technique, gathering the suspects in one room for the unmasking of the murderer.
At times the pace is slow and tends to drag just a smidge. You’ll spend a lot of time in Cait’s analytical head and endure her deliberations until the final few pages. If you like a fast, action-packed story this could be frustrating. If you prefer crime fiction bloody and moody, the Cait Morgan series might not be to your taste, but if you revel in puzzle mysteries set in exotic locations with a cast of enigmatic characters, this one’s for you.
Four Tails Publishing
CFL Rating: 3 Stars