Elspeth Reeves goes home to quiet Wilsby-under-Wychwood to regroup after her job and her relationship end abruptly. But there’s a body in the woods at the bottom of her Mum’s garden, and a black magician who will keep killing until he punctures the veil between the living and the dead. What does Ellie believe in? What does she have to prove?

Book cover: Wychwood - George Mann (a forest glimpsed through a corvid's silhouette)I was a little worried from the official blurb that Wychwood might be all Midsomer Murders and not enough Spooktastic Read, so let’s get that straight up front: this is a creepy, supernatural thriller in which people get killed by inexplicable means. It’s not just a bloke in extravagant costume running round the woods with a dubious (OR IS IT) theory about raising the dead; he does magic, and people die. Ellie needs PC Peter Grant by her side, not DS Peter Shaw (or both. Both is good. I think they’d get on).

However, magical murdering aside, the rest of the story is a traditional rural murder mystery with mythic trappings. The combination works rather well, and should mean Wychwood satisfies mainstream crime lovers as well as those (like me) straying across from the urban fantasy / horror fringe.

Elspeth – Ellie – comes home the night the local police discover the body of a local notable in the Wychwood, dressed in a cloak of feathers and surrounded by seven dead crows. Ellie makes the link to the local myth of the Carrion King, an outcast who mastered magic to get revenge on those who sinned against him. With a play about his life about to open at the local theatre and several local authors writing books about him, the macabre murders are timely. It’s the sort of case that could win an investigative journalist a new job. Is there really a modern-day Carrion King casting spells in the Wychwood?

The prose is a little mundane in places, and the characters play second fiddle to the carefully-constructed personal history of the murderer and the elaborate mythistorical context he is re-enacting. But I liked the easy rekindling of friendship between Ellie and Peter, and was happy that any frisson of more was kept carefully leashed. Ellie is on the rebound; both cherish the friendship enough to keep it at just good friends (for now).

I felt sorry for Dorothy though: her daughter lands on her doorstep full of woe, then spends the rest of the book running back out the door with Peter to investigate. When Dorothy says Peter was at the door asking if Ellie could go out and play, it comes across as both a nostalgic joke and painfully on the nose. There’s an uncomfortable hint of a teenage Ellie in the way she takes her mum’s hospitality for granted (or maybe I’m just unusual in that when I go to see my Mum, I’m going to another country, so I’m going to see my Mum). But perhaps I was more peeved than good-natured Dorothy that Ellie didn’t even try to get her tickets to the opening of the local play.

In spite of my moaning, both Ellie and Peter are easy to like, although I’d like to see significantly more work on shading in their characters. In this first book, Peter is a decent copper who ignores procedure to benefit a friend (…and that really should come back to bite him, given how fearsome his boss is), and Ellie is an idealistic young journalist unafraid of tedious legwork to break her case. Peter has a comic collection; Ellie has opinions on recent Marvel. They both enjoy a night at the pub. There’s not a long to hang your hat on, but that’s okay – this book really is all about the murders.

The plot is well-paced as the mystery unfolds and the body count accelerates. You can play guess the victims as well as whodunnit, and the ritual murders are both grisly and unnerving. I liked that the narrative was unequivocal that yes, we’re dealing with actual magic here; the question for me (similar to The Shining Girls) was whether it was possible to catch a murderer whose modus operandi is invisible to modern investigative and forensic techniques – although the plot sidesteps the challenge of the burden of proof in the end.

I had a moment of distaste over just how much of the myth was steeped in misogynistic tropes, but the modern day eschewed these tropes completely, to my relief. In short, it’s a grisly potboiler of murder and black magic and I zoomed through it with relish.

Recommended.

★★★☆

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, and am zooming on to the sequel because this series is filling my need for entertaining Hallowe’en popcorn!