Reviewed by June Mears Driedger
Crooked Lane Books, April 2018, 332 pp.
A death occurs in the first chapter of Jane Willan’s new novel, The Shadow of Death: A Sister Agatha and Father Selwyn Mystery (Crooked Lane Books). The young sexton at both Saint Anselm Church and Gwenafwy Abbey, Jacob Traherne, receives a text from the Reverend Mother asking him to meet her in the cheese room to fix the thermostat. That is where Jacob’s body is found, lying face down in a pool of blood, killed by the steel shelving units. Only Sister Agatha suspects murder.
In the tradition of British religious detectives, The Shadow of Death introduces us to the intrepid Sister Agatha, amateur sleuth and mystery writer. She is observant, curious, and her love of the classic British detectives guides her as she asks herself: “What would Hercule Poirot or Armand Gamache or Miss Marple do?” Willan’s mystery takes on contemporary issues for the Sisters, making for a lively and sometimes humorous read.
Sister Agatha, our aspiring mystery novelist, sees Jacob’s death as murder, yet she wonders: Was her imagination “getting the better of her now that she was spending every spare moment writing a mystery novel, listening to detective podcasts, and reading all manner of forensic manuals?” But the local policeman, Constable Barnes, rules the death an accident because there is no evidence of foul play. She challenges him about details, observes his lack of gloves while collecting evidence, and volunteers to catalogue said evidence for the constable. Sister Agatha does not think highly of his ability to solve a murder case and begins her own investigation with an unwitting sidekick, Father Welwyn, vicar of St. Anselm and Gwenafwy Abbey, located in northern Wales.
Sister Agatha sharpens her mystery solving skills by listening to Inspector Rupert McFarland, retired Glasgow detective, host of the Radio Wales podcast “Write Now.” Sister Agatha considers him her mentor and takes copious notes while listening. Occasionally, she wonders if Inspector McFarland hasn’t taught her more than the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of St. David which she attended after turning sixty. She uses traditional “gumshoe” investigation techniques: asking a lot of questions, taking careful notes, and asking more questions. Her primary sleuthing tools are expensive, cloth-covered, hand-bound notebooks where she records the ongoing investigation and, on occasion, jots down thoughts during Mass. By the time the murderer confesses to the death of Jacob Traherne, that pristine notebook is worn, smudged, and the worse-for-wear.
The central tension throughout the novel is the decline of both the number of postulants and the money needed to support the Abbey community. Their bishop has given the nuns a deadline of less than a month to develop a plan to or face closure. Gwenafwy Abbey has a micro-business making “Heavenly Gouda” cheese, which is sold in the local village and online, and they have plans to expand their current facilities to create and sell more cheese. The death of Jacob in the cheese warehouse and other setbacks make things all the more desperate. The Abbey nuns continue to worship and pray that God will reveal a way of increasing both membership and finances so they can continue their life together.
Nevertheless, the nuns seem to be at cross-purposes with the younger generation as they attempt to be relevant to the millennial generation. The nuns are keeping abreast with technology by using cell phones and selling their Heavenly Gouda online, yet the cross-purposes appear to be both theological and vocational. This tension is highlighted in a conversation between Sister Agatha and the young deacon Gavin Yarborough. As part of her investigation, Sister Agatha invites Gavin to tea at the local eatery. Before she begins secretly interrogating him, they chat about his work at the church and he complains about the tasks given to him by Father Selwyn, including visiting the older people in the church.
“Driving around to their house or wherever, and then I have to sit and talk with them—you know how old people are. If you don’t stay a full hour, they complain. I guess they’re lonely…. [Father Selwyn] thinks visiting is the best way to connect with the people of the parish.”
“You don’t agree?”
Gavin shook his head and took a long drink of tea. “In seminary, we didn’t learn anything about visiting. In fact, I don’t remember it even being mentioned.”
“What did you study in seminary?”
“Justice stuff. You know, like LGBT rights or lobbying Parliament about immigration. Or the environment. But here I am, finally in the parish—almost a real priest—and all I do is drive around talking with old people and sorting books for the book fair. I haven’t done any social justice at all.” He drank the last of the tea. “I guess I thought being a priest would be more … you know … exciting.”
Sister Agatha watched aghast as he looked at his phone, laughed as he read something, and then spent a minute texting before looking up again. No wonder Reverend Mother had outlawed all phone use during meals.
As you would expect, both the mystery and the financial plight of the Sisters is resolved by the end of the novel. The Shadow of Death is the first in a series, according to the author note. Based on this inaugural book, readers can anticipate lively and charming future adventures with Sister Agatha and Father Selywn. If you are looking for deep psychological explorations of the mind of either a murderer or the investigator, or a book with an unreliable narrator, this is not the book for you. However, if you want to spend time with delightful and wholesome characters without gruesome descriptions of physical evidence then Sister Agatha and Father Selywn are ideal companions for a satisfying read.
*Jane Willan was a participant in the 2014 Words that Sing II: Advanced Creative Writing with Mary Nielsen regional workshop and the 2016 Apart, and Yet a Part: A Week with Michael N. McGregor workshop at the Collegeville Institute.