The Serpent Dance by Sofia Slater

3 Mins read
The Serpent Dance by Sofia Slater front cover

This intriguing contemporary whodunnit is a mystery, but it’s also like a trip back in time to an era when Cornish midsummer revelry involved bonfires, ancient Celtic music, river offerings and wicker animals being consumed in the ritual pyre. American author Sofia Slater draws on the persistence of these ancient practices, mixing the traditional and the modern in ways that occasionally baffle the protagonist, Audrey Delaney.

Audrey is a graphic designer in London whose new boyfriend, Noah, has planned a surprise getaway for them. She’s convinced herself and told all her friends that he’s taking her to Paris. When it turns out they’re headed to the fictional Cornish village of Trevennick, she tries not to show her disappointment, but Noah realises he’s missed the mark.

From there, their situation goes from bad to much, much worse. Locals refer to the B&B he’s arranged as ‘the big house’. Yes, it’s big, but far from a place where Audrey can feel like the lady of the manor or even reasonably comfortable. It’s a modern, glass-walled home overlooking the river. Inside, there are almost no walls – open-plan carried to an extreme. And their landlady will be staying in the master bedroom, with just a wisp of separation between her and the only other bedroom, the one to be occupied by the couple. Fish in an aquarium is the image Audrey conjures.

Noah’s reaction to their hostess is certainly odd. She’s a renowned television personality, and he takes to her with unexpected enthusiasm. Audrey feels so wrong-footed, she drinks too much at dinner and goes to bed. Something isn’t right. Why this place? What’s Noah’s real agenda? Why his interest in this older woman? The twisting lines of the eponymous serpent dance itself can’t compare to the secrets Audrey is about to discover.

No need to worry about their hostess, though, because before morning she lies dead in a pool of blood, a knife to her throat. The door of the bedroom where the body lies is locked from the inside, so the police initially consider it a suicide, but the woman wasn’t the type and was about to be married. Elements of the crime scene simply don’t add up. Since Audrey and Noah are the only other people in the house, and since anyone else padding about could not do so without risking being seen, the police focus on them. On Noah, particularly. It’s that used condom that raises suspicion.

The town is preparing for the midsummer Golowan festivities, masks and wicker Obby Osses everywhere. It’s a deeply local tradition and outsiders aren’t made to feel especially welcome, particularly when the shadow of murder has fallen on them. Author Slater creates a profoundly unsettling atmosphere in which Audrey must navigate alone, since Noah has been carted off by the authorities. Although she’s unsure of her relationship with him, she’s unwilling to abandon Noah in a Cornish jail cell, and she’s now staying with a local clergywoman at the rather dingy vicarage.

The most welcoming people in town are the members of a West Indian family that for generations has owned the local pub – matriarch Morwenna Kingcup and her sons, Trevor and Griffin. Trevor seems to have a perpetual chip on his shoulder, but Griffin is open and, when it comes to Audrey, interested. Family is important here and in more ways than one.

Over the next days of the celebration, more bodies turn up, eventualities that the locals seem to chalk up to folklore about the river getting its due. But Audrey believes more prosaic forces are at work. Despite the dramatic beauty of the cliffs and the river running headlong toward the sea, she doesn’t dwell so much on her surroundings as on her predicament, and she tackles the problem in the way she tries to work through any difficult circumstance, by drawing. She’s talented, but the realism of her depiction of Stella’s corpse, among other local characters, is inevitably misunderstood and held against her.

The Serpent Dance is a classic case of being out of one’s own element. This unfamiliarity not only makes Audrey anxious, it makes her anxious about the wrong things, so that she doesn’t recognise the danger to herself. The book’s mix of past and present, culture and calamity is quite charming.

Also see The Clearing by Simon Toyne or The Book of Lamps and Banners by Elizabeth Hand.

Swift Press
Print, Kindle

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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