Elspeth Reeves has put the horrors of the Carrion King story behind her. When archaeologists unearth the bones of a long-dead witch, there are mutters that her centuries-old curse will be reawakened. But is the vengeful spirit of Agnes Levett really behind the spate of murders that follow?
I am becoming quite attached to George Mann’s new series of paranormal potboilers. I like the juxtaposition of mundane sleuthing with the narrative straightforwardness that there’s more going on than meets the eye. The question is only how quickly Elspeth and DS Shaw – now aware that ‘there’s more on heaven and earth, Horatio’ – can work out that there’s something unusual going on.
Set some months after the grisly Carrion King murders, the eponymous village of Hallowdene is about to celebrate its annual Fayre – complete with gruesome parade and effigy-burning – by digging up its most famous (and long-dead) inhabitant: the Hallowdene Witch herself.
Agnes Levett was executed for the murder of Grace Abbott, lady of the local manor. Before she died, Agnes cursed the village – and three more people died. The terrified villagers reburied her bones beneath a witch stone to quiet her restless spirit. Or so the story goes… Now the new owner of Hallowdene Manor has finally granted archaeologist Jenny Wren the permission she’s always sought to see if there really are bones buried beneath the macabre monument on his grounds.
Not everyone in Hallowdene thinks this is a good idea. Local crank Lee Stroud, long-time opponent of the annual Fayre, is on a crusade to persuade everyone not to awaken forces they don’t understand. Even Dorothy Reeves thinks the dead would be best left alone. But surely no harm can come from re-examining an ancient legend and reappraising the evidence against Agnes Levett… can there?
I love how George Mann crafts entirely fictional folklore that doesn’t seem out of place in the canon of English myth. The Carrion King felt like a half-forgotten Anglo-Saxon epic; the Hallowdene Witch sounds from the start like a maligned woman mistreated by her peers and now taken advantage of by a village keen to attract tourists. The macabre Fayre and the witchy souvenirs in Richmond’s cafe are a more explicit commercialisation than the books and plays of Wychwood, and consequently feel less respectful and more exploitative (if inevitable). I had immediate sympathy for Jenny Wren’s implied – if impossible – desire to reclaim Agnes’s reputation.
Needless to say, as soon as Agnes’s bones are out of the ground, the murders begin. When the least popular man in the village is strangled to death in his own home, DS Shaw finds himself in charge of another murder investigation. There’s no shortage of suspects, either – everybody hated Nicholas Abbott – and it is soon apparent that several villagers have something to hide. When prime suspect Lee Stroud is the next to turn up dead, the pressure is on to find a connection between the victims. Or is any resident of Hallowdene fair game?
Mann is generous with both his clues and his red herrings; there’ll be no prizes for correctly guessing which are which, but a great deal of entertainment in watching events unfold. While there’s no doubt that a ghost is stalking the woods, it’s unclear until the very end whether the witch is possessing the murderer.
I’m a sucker for the tension created when rationalists are confronted with the supernatural; and Peter is determined to find things that will stand up in court. He’s keen to play it by the book for other reasons, too: he narrowly dodged a disciplinary for getting Ellie involved in the Carrion King case (DCI Griffiths is a battle-axe, but awfully forgiving if you get results), and there can be no suggestion of blurring those boundaries again.
Professionalism isn’t the only new barrier between the two old friends. Peter has personal reasons for wanting to keep Ellie out of the line of fire. I was a little sad to discover that the investigative duo are now a couple – Ellie having made the first move at some point since Wychwood – if not for my usual reasons. Shockingly (I know, I know, consistency isn’t my strong point when it comes to romantic subplots), I was enjoying the undercurrents of sexual tension and looking forward to a bit more will-they-won’t-they slow-burn romance.
However, their romantic involvement introduces new tensions. After solving a high profile murder case, Peter is finding rural policing a bit slow; he’s torn between the temptation of promotion and the knowledge that it would mean leaving the area. Meanwhile, Ellie’s friends back in London are doing their best to help her ‘re-start’ her career by setting her up for publishing jobs back in the big city.
If only there weren’t so many damn murders, they might actually have time to talk these things through.
I complained last time out that the characters were thin; in exploring their relationship, Mann begins filling them out. It’s very light touch – he’s no Susan Hill – but I liked seeing the couple grapple with their ambitions and take stock of what they each really wanted. Ellie’s adoption of troubled young waitress Daisy was also a nice touch: she is genuinely interested in people, not just stories. They’re both just so damn likeable, which makes them easy to root for.
Another thoroughly diverting page-turner. Keep them coming, Mr Mann!
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.