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Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams

June 23, 2014 4 comments

Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams

Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams (Severn House, 2014) the fifteenth Dorothy Martin Mystery, sees the process for appointing a new bishop rudely interrupted by the death of one of the four on the shortlist. By virtue of his long-term involvement in church affairs and his status as a retired senior police office, Alan Martin has been made a member of the Crown Appointments Commission and is at the heart of the appointments process. Dorothy as an ex-pat American can’t formally be a part of the process but, as a disinterested observer, she can play a part in untangling the web, particularly because, as one of those responsible for making the appointment, Alan is a potential suspect. Despite Alan’s retired status, the Dean of the cathedral asks our dynamic duo to do what they do, which is to investigate quietly. The selection of the candidates has been bad-tempered and, once the shortlist was announced, the anger has grown.

It’s a sad fact of life in an increasingly secular society that the minority Christians feel more under pressure. In this case, there’s a significant political element involved as conservatives (with both big and little cs) despise and agitate against reformist and socialist candidates. Meanwhile, women campaign with placards proclaiming a sexist church that refuses to consider appointing a woman to the position of bishop. There are also problems with the Church’s attitude to homosexuality. The Commission meetings have been acrimonious with passions high on the extremes, and the moderates trying to hold the balance of rational debate in the centre. This identifies several on the Commission itself who might have a motive for eliminating this particular candidate. The remaining three on the shortlist might also be suspect. Our duo set off for London where one of the shortlisted candidates has his parish. There are dark mutterings about him being a man who misuses his charisma to extract money from susceptible women in the congregation and then pockets some of the money. The candidate from Birmingham is a social agitator who has been arrested on demonstrations against local factories for polluting the landscape and employers for their poor pay and bad working practices. Then off to Rotherford, near Oxford, for the final candidate. And then, to add a little spice to the somewhat staid proceedings up to this point, a man goes missing.

Jeanne M Dams

Jeanne M Dams

The problem for solution in this book is somewhat diffuse. There’s a death which may or may not be a homicide. Because our couple are not official investigators and, by virtue of his membership of the Commission, Alan may be on the list of possible suspects, there’s no access to the police forensic reports. With an inquest there would have been public information, but we and our investigators are left to get into investigative mode on the assumption someone has rid the cathedral of a turbulent priest. If this was a Golden Age novel, there would be a way in which the number of possible suspects could be kept within reasonable bounds. But the moment you start thinking seriously about who might have had motive and opportunity, there’s a potential country full of suspects who would have to be investigated. Obviously, despite their prowess, our couple don’t have the time or resources to do anything more than commute between the three parishes in which the other three candidates hold sway. By necessity, therefore, we readers know we must meet the probable murderer at some point. For this reason, I’m not entirely sure the author is playing fair with us. A lot of what happens is interesting, but not really moving us forward. It’s local colour or scenes of life in the different parishes. Yes the couple are investigating, but so little of what they see and hear is ultimately relevant to explaining what has happened.

For me as an atheist, the book is a sober warning about many of the types of people who become involved in church affairs. As skeletons come out of cupboards, we’re allowed to see how bigoted, prejudiced, criminal, or just plain awful some of the people holding positions of power and influence can be. This is not to say society would become a better, safer place if full secularisation were to be achieved. I’m not so naive. Human nature produces some terrible behaviour no matter what the belief systems. But if the veneer of respectability was to be stripped away and society allowed fewer roles through which such people can exercise power over others, we might see some improvement. All forms of politics are better when there are fewer opportunities for self-righteousness and hypocrisy around.

As to the content, I confess to finding the exploration of the way in which different belief sets influenced preaching styles and the management of parishes deeply boring. That some parishioners were gulls and played as suckers was depressing. It reflects the general rule that vulnerable people who come under the sway of charismatic individuals, are more easily led astray. Taking the overview, Day of Vengeance has an interesting plot underpinning the investigation of the initial death and all that follows. But, in parallel, there’s a more literary intent to consider the weaknesses of many who are involved in the management of this religion. Yes, some are sincere and a force for good, but this book is a disturbing exposé of distinctly unhealthy forces within this particular denomination. That this church fails to be self-policing completes the more pervasive sense of despair. It seems the few men who could take action to root out the evil do nothing. A more complete condemnation would be hard to find.

For a review of the preceding book in the series, see Shadows of Death.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Shadows of Death by Jeanne M Dams

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

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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.

Jeanne M Dams

Jeanne M Dams

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.

For a review of the next book in the series, see Day of Vengeance.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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