Shadow of Death by Alison Joseph

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Shadow of Death by Alison Joseph

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A thought-provoking and intriguing story from Alison Joseph's Sister Agnes series provides the sort of characters who stay with you long after the book is finished. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Allison & Busby
ISBN: 978-0749081911

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Sister Agnes is helping to sort out a library of books before the building in which they're housed is sold. For the most part it's Victoriana and lives of the saints. There's one collection which catches her eye, though, and that's the Hawker archive - a beautifully preserved collection of leather-bound books dating from the seventeenth century. Many of the books are about spells and magic but Agnes is most intrigued by the diary of Alice Hawker which tells her story and those of her husband and their daughter who died in infancy. Alice did not live much longer herself, but her story seemed to have a strange resonance in the present.

I didn't think that I was going to enjoy this book. I was expecting a better-than-thou heroine, but instead I discovered a feisty woman with human failings and one who freely admitted that atheism might have been the easier option. She loves good food and wine and despairs of what is served by her Holy Order and considering that she has taken her final vows her dislike of living in the convent is something of an inconvenience. Her preference for driving a Mercedes rather than the Order's more mundane form of transport doesn't make life easier either. There should be more nuns like this.

There is a religious element and I thought that this might be a problem as this normally puts me off a book, but it's there in a rather understated way but with some thought-provoking ideas about the nature of faith and that not all religious are necessarily good people. Even a week after I finished reading the book I was still thinking about some of the subtle distinctions and looking at some points in a new light. That's unusual in a work of fiction.

I loved the characters and it's not just Sister Agnes who's there fully-fleshed. Even relatively minor characters bring a lot to the story, from the doctor's wife who's suicidal in her desperation to have a child and believes that prayer will bring this about when medical science suggests that it's all but impossible, to the librarian prepared to devote her life to her mother. They're all people who stay with you. I found myself wondering how they got on after the end of the story.

The plot isn't complex but it is neatly done. I guessed the identity of the murderer at quite an early stage, but I hadn't fully worked out all the reasoning. This didn't really matter though as this is one of those crime novels where the telling of the story is as important as the solving of the mystery. There are some moments of tension and drama, but the book stays in my mind as a gentle, thought-provoking read. The various sub-plots, including the story behind the Hawker Archive are all brought neatly together with no sense of artifice. It was very satisfying.

I don't normally like civilian investigators. The stories usually lack realism and are more akin to comedy than crime, but there's no lack of realism in this book. For another book featuring a civilian investigator you might like to read Maxwell's Mask by M J Trow.

My thanks to the lovely people at Allison and Busby for sending us this book.

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