Strange Tombs (Essex Witch Museum Mysteries, 4)
Point Blank (Oneworld), 2 May 2019
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Strange Tombs.
Syd Moore's Essex Witch mysteries go meta in this fourth instalment, with Rosie Strange and Sam Stone called in when a body is discovered on Hallowe'ent at a mystery writers' workshop being held in a lonely mansion out in the Essex countryside.
(If you haven't read any Essex Witch Museum Mysteries before then here is a brief, spoiler-free summary: Rosie Strange is a Benefit Fraud inspector who unexpectedly inherited the Essex Witch Museum from her Uncle Septimus. Initially meaning to shut down and sell the place, instead she falls under its spell and is soon working alongside the fascinating Sam Stone, curator of the Museum, to investigate crimes and strange goings-on which have a possible supernatural bent. And discovering more about her family along the way...)
With plenty of scope in Strange Tombs for bickering between authorial egos, resentments over publication (or not) and the general suggestiveness of the setting, Moore could have been forgiven for going full Agatha Christie or even Cluedo (there are some knowing hints in that direction). In fact she doesn't do that. As with the previous books in this series, Strange Tombs is focussed on Sam and Rosie, whose evolving and well observed relationship is now firmly established and a joy to watch develop further. While so far the books have only taken up a single summer of fictional time, a great deal has changed. The two know and trust each other much better, but there's a still a lot which isn't said, still a lot of avoiding certain areas and topics and even new mysteries concerning (this time) Sam's background. And with the cycle now moving into winter, Rosie is feeling a sense of darkness, a blunting of her insight, that may - I think - be due to more than seasonal affective disorder.
Ordered to look into the mystery surrounding Ratchette Hall by Sam's Intelligence contact Monty (Rosie insists on referring to him as Agent Walker which suggests a whole layer of X-Files like skullduggery) Rosie and Sam have a kind of semi-legitimate interest in a death (that may, anyway, not be a murder) which means their particular lines of enquiry are, at least, tolerated by the assembled writers and the villagers of Damebury. And there seems plenty for them to uncover, what with strange noises in the woods, rumours of witchcraft, pagan temples, mutilated animals, and a desecrated tomb. It's obviously time for the classic Essex Witch Museum blend of an open mind and a steely scepticism - so why is Sam suddenly convinced that he's seen a ghost? And what does happen to Rosie in the woods?
This is a rattling good story that operates at a number of levels: the immediate mystery, its rather odd background in local lore, and an ongoing thread surrounding Rosie in particular, who seems to have inherited more from her family background than a decaying museum. While the events of Strange Fascination told her a lot about that background, there's clearly further stuff to discover here with Moore ratcheting up the tension and, in some particularly eerie passages, deftly replacing the characteristic humour of these books with a genuinely creepy tone (not the first time she's done that, of course - but here it especially made the back of my neck prickle...)
In this fourth book (with some short stories as well) the series shows no sign of flagging, indeed with the season of walking ghosts and the looming darkness of Winter it appears to be heading for new revelations and a chillier tone. Still great fun, and with some sharp messages besides (Rosie is an Essex girl, and feels the prejudice this entails: "Being a blondish blandish chick from Essex with more than a bit of natural bounce in the chest area and a nice rounded accent too, that kind of attitude came at me form snooty people all over the place...") I'd strongly recommend.
For more about Strange Tombs, see the publisher's website here. You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive, from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.
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