Shadows of Death by Jeanne M Dams
Shadows of Death by Jeanne M Dams (Severn House, 2013) is the fourteenth Dorothy Martin Mystery. She’s from Indiana but has married an Englishman (well Cornishman which is not at all the same thing) who, conveniently, used to be a policeman (well, Chief Constable), and she’s now gone as native as any willing American can. For those of you less clued into the mysteries of the north of Scotland in general and Orkney in particular, it tends to be quite cold (even in summer) and there are many sites to interest archaeologists. Indeed, with the type of perversity usually reserved to the young of our day, it seems the first people to enter this island of ours came from the north. Yes, I know most people would imagine they crossed over on one of the ferries from France (avoiding King Harold with the arrow sticking out of his eye), but the oldest evidence of human occupation in Britain is in Orkney. When it comes to watching people dig up the evidence of this first batch of illegal immigrants, the first step is to journey north having made arrangements for the cats — the dog is expected to rough it with the humans as they first drive and then fly their way towards the Pole.
When installed in Stromness, they meet up with a local potter called Andrew and, with a minor delay to fit in more local colour including Roadkill, the local feline who’s master of all he surveys, we can get on with the mystery. Yes, everyone has their own irons in the archaeological fire and disagreements over how best to proceed with the dig are growing ever more acrimonious. Now with the death of the American who was funding the excavation, it’s time for our sleuths to get to work (did I mention her dog is called Watson?). When public opinion and some conveniently damning evidence combine, the police arrest the local farmer who had been loudly broadcasting his intention to rid the earth of Americans in general and this man in particular. This, of course, is the signal for our investigative duo (plus Watson) to get started. And then all we need is for the local police to be called away to deal with a major terrorist threat (a very British phenomenon) which leaves our investigators without portfolio to work out whodunnit.
The problem, of course, conforms to the Golden Age formula. We’re stuck on an island with a limited pool of suspects. When we further analyse the situation, there’s motive and opportunity aplenty. Better still, none of the most obvious candidates has a complete alibi. So now it comes down to the core problem. No-one needs to talk to either of our heroes. He’s long retired and she’s, well, American and with the exception of “Mac” Macintyre, all foreigners in the northern reaches of Scotland are sassenach and worse, and so condemned to be ignored. Her status shades even more into despicable territory when Roadkill goes missing and the rumour mill thinks shedunnit. Fortunately, one or two women who are plugged into the innocent until proved guilty mode prevail over the no smoke without fire brigade. With alcohol flowing, communications can be restored. Still the gossip very specifically alleges Roadkill was sacrificed in a ritual. The ladies of the village remember another ritual sacrifice where the one blamed mistook a hen for a cockerel which, no doubt, cocked up the sacrifice when the blood was spilled.
At this point, I need a brief moment to think about classifying this book. Arising on the other side of the Pond, the cozy mystery is selling strongly. This almost always features an intelligent woman as an amateur sleuth who uses her life’s experience to unravel whatever puzzles are thrown into her path. As with the Golden Age format, the setting tends to be a village. That’s why the majority of the key characters already know each other and, exploiting her natural wit and charm, our protagonist infiltrates the gossip circle and roots out the facts necessary to solve the crime. In this case, our stereotypical heroine is married to an ex-policeman whose past record opens doors that would usually be closed to an amateur. Finally, most would characterise this subgenre as being “gentle”. The victim is usually portrayed as seriously unpleasant and deserving to die and, as in this book, the murder method is made to look like an accident. This avoids any real unpleasantness and leaves the readers to focus on the quality of the plot and the development of the characters.
So, for better or worse, Shadows of Death is an English (tea) cozy with a pleasing ramble through village life in the Scottish Islands as our duo filter fact from fiction in the local gossip, excavate the truth from the mass of conflicting evidence, and arrive at the solution to the problem. I suspect I’m not in the target readership for a book of this type. I appreciate it but leave it to female readers to genuinely enjoy the exploration of the relationship between the couple as they navigate the tricky waters of Scottish culture in pursuit of a killer.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.