Tuesday, 14 September 2010
The Blood Pit: three books by Kate Ellis
The Blood Pit is the third book I've read by Kate Ellis, and the second which features her detective Wesley Peterson. I read the first in that series, The Merchant's House, last month. What attracted me was the discovery that they are set in South Devon, the area I visit regularly when I go to see my parents. I was intrigued to see what a murder mystery set there would be like, all the more so because there is all her plots of a historical aspect as well as a present-day one. Wesley is an incomer to Devon, doubly an outsider in the not-especially-multicultural South Hams because he's black; within the local police force he's that fish out of water, a graduate policeman, having studied archaeology. Fortunately, his boss, Gerry Heffernan, is another incomer, from Liverpool this time, and he receives a reasonably warm welcome. He's pleasantly surprised, too, to find an old friend working in Tradmouth (aka Dartmouth), Neil Watson, who is in charge of a dig at an old merchant's house in the town.
This sets up the whole series: while Wesley investigates a case, Neil finds that he is working on a related archaeological mystery. In the first book it's a body in the cellar of the house; in a much more recent one, The Blood Pit, he is digging up the remains of a mediaeval abbey when he finds a strange pit. At the same time, Wesley is called to a murder scene where the body of the thoroughly unpleasant Charles Marrick has been discovered, drained of blood (it was this scenario which made the book seem so suitable for RIPV). Neil, meanwhile, finds himself possibly caught up in modern events when he starts to receive anonymous letters talking about blood: the writer not only seems to know a great deal about the abbey and its history, but makes threatening allusions to making people bleed. Such is the nature of these stories that it's not long before a second body is found.
These are well-constructed stories with plausible characters. I am beginning to like local detective constable, Rachel, a farmer's daughter with a sensible attitude to her job (and a bit of a soft spot for Wesley). I'd like to see her develop further: her handling of a possible suspect in The Blood Pit really rang true. In some ways, I was more taken with the author's newer series, set in a thinly disguised York (here, Eborby), with a detective called Joe Plantagenet. The first, Seeking the Dead, has slight overtones of the supernatural (there might be a ghost, but nothing to compare with Merrily Watkins). I think the atmosphere of the mediaeval city in the modern day is much easier to recreate: York is full of dark alleys and snickleways - the very word provides its own atmosphere - and we've seen in series like Morse and Rebus how a city becomes a character in its own right. It's much harder to do this with a more diverse area - South Devon has a mix of small towns, villages and the urban sprawl of Torbay. However, we've seen that Martin Edwards is mapping out a Cumbrian setting that is both distinctive and local, and it would be interesting to know what Martin himself thinks on this subject, particularly since he also has a series with a city setting, in this case, Liverpool. But it's hard to pin down what characterises South Devon these days, where hardly any locals now remain in the villages, and where towns like Totnes (Neston in Ellis's books) do from time to time show signs of the divide between the local population and the New Age incomers. Perhaps I am asking the impossible!
At any rate, both series offer plenty of potential for satisfying reading, ideal for those who don't like their crime too gritty. They deal with present-day themes, so I would hesitate to put them into the cosy class, but the historical subplots offer an element of that genre. I look forward to more of the Plantagenet series, but I'll be perfectly happy to carry on reading the Devon ones too.
A final note, I'm trying to make sure that any challenge reading I do includes - but is not limited to - books which come from our local library, and all three of these did.