A very private grave

A very private grave (The monastery murders Book 1)

Donna Fletcher Crow
Monarch, 2010, £8.99, Pbk., 383p.,
ISBN 9781854249685

I’m a huge fan of period mystery, but this is the first contemporary novel in that genre I’ve read, and my first Donna Fletcher Crow.

The overall sense of the mystery that Felicity, and American theology student and her teacher Fr. Anthony try to solve was just gripping enough to keep me turning the pages. That was despite me having succumbed to my usual habit of reading the ending first so I know what happens. Yes, really; I quite enjoy finding out the journey the writer then takes me on.

There were a few things I struggled with. I’d agree with the book’s blurb that the descriptions of the north east were indeed evocative. And I laughed out loud at the idea that the ‘English seemed to have a special compartment in their brains for train schedules.’

Yet that neat and truthful observation was not borne out in the apparent ease with which the protagonists criss-cross the area on various means of public transport – without ever, it seems, needing to buy a ticket or check a schedule.

Every now and then an Americanism would slip into English Antony’s thinking, which was a little bit jarring, if understandable as DFC is of course from the US. This mixing of terms and phrases between British English and American English is common in our culture now – and in visual culture, too. Think of some of the meals served in the Harry Potter films, which have a distinct stateside feel compared to English school fare.

I was also left with a number of questions. If one was given a peremptory message by your superior to escape – would you not at some point check in with him? Why did F & A not stop and buy a set of decent clothes? Buy a mobile phone? They leave their luggage behind an awful lot. There are a few more, but they’re plot spoilers. Several times I found myself reading about people tucking into breakfast when I thought it would be lunchtime; days seemed to pass and be jumbled in a way that had me flicking back through the pages to see if I had missed something.

I couldn’t decide whether the spiritual strand woven through the book was comforting, insightful or a distraction. I definitely skipped some parts and some of the Cuthbert back story. Sometimes the prayerfulness and spirituality felt contrived, but other times the lines of scripture or daily offices were more appropriate. In fact, to sum up, a bit contrived would be my overall verdict on the book. I didn’t find it completely compelling; and I found myself distracted by what felt like plot holes. Some of the supporting cast felt a little clichéd and unrealistic. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the description of the librarian’s ‘beige cardigan.’ Co-incidences and red herrings are of course the mainstays of whodunnits, designed to keep us guessing (even if we’ve read the ending first). I just felt there were a few too many co-incidences, a few too many times when strangers became connected to the players to move the narrative on.

The narrative changes between Felicity and Antony’s view, encompassing their own internal thought life and these passages were good, sometimes enlightening and thought provoking. I imagine it’s hard to capture in plain prose the sense of fleeting thoughts, images and sensory impressions that make up an internal monologue. One line did particularly stick in my mind (“one chose a sheltered path for life, then found it led only to a cliff edge,” p. 265) and when reading at night and meeting a description of Compline, I was motivated to fire up my laptop and read that day’s version.

However, if you are a fan of DFC or meditative mystery, you will doubtless be hooked. Felicity and Antony are interesting characters in their own right and worth getting to know. The book wouldn’t make my Desert Island list, but I’m minded to try the sequel if I come across it. And yes, I will still read the last few pages first.

Contributed by: Sara Batts, BSc (Hons), MSc, who works as Senior Research Librarian for Reed Smith.