SOMETIMES you come across a crime mystery that is so good it reads like a regular novel, and Death at Whitewater Church is one of those.
The twists and turns of its complicated plot reminded me of early Sue Grafton stories in the alphabetical series that started with A is for Alibi, while its portrait of life in a small town in rural Donegal would have made a lively read even without the murder mystery.
The coast of the Inishowen peninsula, bordered by Lough Foyle to the east and the Atlantic to the north, provides a dramatic background to a series of bizarre and puzzling events.
As the story opens the narrator, a young solicitor called Benedicta ‘Ben’ O’Keefe, known for her curiosity (or nosiness, some would say), is accompanying surveyor Paul Doherty to a deconsecrated cliff-top church that her client is hoping to sell as a holiday home.
It is already dusk, there is snow in the air, and the church is damp and cold, so they are keen to get the job done and head home.
Paul is in the crypt, measuring and photographing, when he discovers a blanket that turns out to be wrapped around a human skeleton, the head laid on a pillow.
First on the scene is Garda Sergeant Tom Molloy, a Cork man who seems to have a more than professional interest in Ben.
Both she and Paul are badly shaken by the discovery of human remains.
Luckily there is a pathologist visiting Letterkenny, who is also a forensic anthropologist, and she and Sergeant Molloy can take over from this point.
Ben O’Keefe is immediately suspicious and nervous when she hears of a female pathologist, suspecting it might be the same woman whose path crossed hers some years earlier, and whom she would rather not meet again.
This is the first of several mysteries whose full significance emerges only gradually in the course of the story.
It will also explain why a Dubliner like Ben chose to buy a solicitor’s practice in remote Glendara.
Whitewater Church was built to serve a small community that lived on the coast overlooking the Foyle estuary, providing pilots for boats travelling up to Derry.
Both school and church closed down, when most people left the village after the IRA bombing of a British cargo ship, the Sadie, in 1985, in which two men and the pilot lost their lives.
Both Whitewater and Glendara are fictional places but sited in specific geographical locations.
Ben lives alone in a small village about five miles north of Glendara with an enormous black tomcat called Guinness. Her social life revolves around the drama group, and her best friend is a vet called Maeve.
When under extreme stress she likes to pick up her togs and go for an outdoor swim, whatever the weather.
The townspeople immediately guess that the skeleton must belong to Conor Devitt, whose sister Claire is in Ben’s drama group.
Conor disappeared on his wedding day six years earlier, and had not been heard from since.
The fiancée that he jilted, Lisa, has recently married and returns from her honeymoon to hear the news.
It emerges that all the leading characters in the ensuing drama have close links to Whitewater. The tension is cleverly ratcheted up, against the background of Ben’s everyday life as a solicitor.
Andrea Carter was a lawyer before she took to writing crime fiction, and the technical details are fascinating.
The complications of the mystery, and its eventual disentangling are brought to a satisfying and unexpected conclusion.
I suspect we will be hearing a lot more of Ben O’Keefe and Glendara’s little community.
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