In the 17th installment of Ellis’s famous mystery series, its protagonist DI Wesley Peterson faces a baffling murder of an unknown woman. Strangely, the victim was killed near the property of a convicted murderer Lilith Benley. Eighteen year ago, Lilith was sent to prison for the brutal murder of two teenage girls. She always denied her guilt, but the evidence was overwhelming. There was also a rumor of witchcraft, although in the 20th century, nobody took it seriously, at least not the police. Now Lilith is out on parole, and another murder takes place suspiciously close to her house. Is she guilty of this one too? Was she ever guilty?
Wesley Peterson investigates, aided by his friends and colleagues, but his investigation is hampered by several interconnected subplots. Each of the possible suspects might or might not be the culprit. Each might or might not have a motive. The police ask questions, but nobody tells the whole truth. Everybody have secrets they’re eager to protect. Furthermore, almost all of the suspects and a few bystanders legally changed their names in the past, which tangles the unfolding drama even further.
As one red herring after another drop out of story, Wesley is left to wonder: who killed the mysterious woman and why, and what is the connection to the eighteen-year-old case.
As always in the series, Wesley’s friend, archeologist Neil Watson, is working on a case of his own, the case involving witches of the 17th century. When during a house restoration, builders uncover sinister wax dolls, the link to witchcraft is implicit, and Neil’s interest spikes.
The archived documents he reads and the current case file seem to mirror each other, as the fear of witches, combined with the purely human spite and jealousy, inevitably lead to tragedy, no matter the century.
The pace is slow on the surface, as the police officers’ preeminent occupation seems to be waiting. Waiting for one of their endless interviews to produce a lead, which might be false. Waiting for the lab results. Waiting for the witness reports. Waiting, waiting, waiting…
While waiting, Wesley is thinking and connecting dots, and all this time, the tension thrums underneath the action, climbing steadily as the hero tries to separate lies from truth. Like an archeologist of human sins, he exposes the shadows to the light, and so the title is apt.
Wesley’s character is one of the most charismatic in the mystery genre. Thoughtful, clever, and kind, he is the ideal police officer, the one we all want to meet, if ever the need arises. Beside him, all the other characters pale. He also doesn’t have any inner demons, like so many literary detectives do these days, no drink or drug abuse, no hidden vice, and his squeaky-clean psyche only endears him to me.
Another character worth mentioning is Lilith Benley, the convicted murderess. Her multifaceted personality enriches the tale, while doubts of her past guilt create an additional layer of suspense. Was justice miscarried in her case? Did she serve her time but for the wrong crime? Is the crazy killer targeting her?
I’ve read almost all the novels in this series and I can see how the author has matured since the series’ inception. Her characters are deeper now than in the beginning, although the storyline has become grimmer, and the bitter ending demonstrates that despite all the efforts of good men, and Wesley is unquestionably one of them, evil often prevails. Although the novel ended, Wesley still has work to do.
Recommended to all mystery fans.
A personal reflection:
One of the minor subplots of this novel, echoing several main plotlines, involves a school teachers being accused of sexual assault by his female student. Until the girl recanted her statement, the police was inclined to believe her. The man was ruined without any proof of his guilt. The case reminded me of a similar case, but not fictional, unfortunately. My friend’s neighbor was a teacher, a nice and decent man. My friend’s young daughter often played with his daughter. Then his student accused him of sexual assault, and the ugly ball started rolling. He was suspended from work. He was arrested and interrogated. The police even went so far as to ban him from his own daughter, at least temporarily. In the end, nothing was proven, and nobody who knew him believed the accusation anyway. The girl just did it to attract attention, or maybe out of spite, but the man’s professional life was in shreds. Eventually, he left his job at the school, and the family moved – they couldn’t pay the mortgage on their house anymore. I don’t know how his story ended, but he didn’t deserve what was done to him by his little bitch of a student. Why did the police and the school believe her and not him? Is that how our society works?