Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Jackal Man - Kate Ellis

Kate Ellis’s new novel, The Jackal Man, is the latest in her series featuring DI Wesley Peterson & DCI Gerry Heffernan. Set in Tradmouth, a fictional town on the south coast of England, this is one of my very favourite mystery series. I’ve been reading them since the first novel, The Merchant’s House, was published in 1998. The initial attraction for me was the mix of contemporary crime with history & archaeological. I love history & I’m an unashamed fan of archaeological TV shows like Time Team & Meet the Ancestors, so this series grabbed my attention. I still love the mix of crime & history but I’ve grown to love meeting up with Wes, Gerry, their families & friends. I settled down last Sunday afternoon, eager to catch up with the characters & be swept away by an absorbing mystery.

The Jackal Man is a breathless ride. I started it on Sunday, read 100pp without moving from my seat & finished it on Tuesday night. A teenage girl is attacked as she walks home from the pub. The attacker tries to strangle her but he’s disturbed by a passing car & she survives. All Clare can remember of the person who grabbed her is that he had a dog’s head. A few days later, another young woman is not so lucky. Analise, a Norwegian girl working as an au pair, is found murdered. She too had been strangled but this time, the killer was not disturbed. Her body had been mutilated, her organs removed & laid beside the body & her body wrapped in a linen shroud. A small figure of a dog was laid on the corpse. D I Wesley Peterson studied archaeology at university & he recognizes the dog as a jackal, the likeness of Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the dead. He suspects that the murderer, wearing a mask of the god Anubis, was trying to replicate the Egyptian rituals of mummification by removing the organs & wrapping the body in linen.

Wes’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson, has also become interested in Egyptology. He’s been called in by Caroline Varley to assess the collection of her great grandfather, Egyptologist Sir Frederick Varley. Caroline has just inherited his home, Varley Castle. She wants to give it to the National Trust to be kept as a museum but needs to know what’s there & what it’s worth. Neil soon realises that he needs to consult an expert at the British Museum but he’s intrigued by Caroline & the castle, especially after she tells him that her great-uncle, Sir Frederick’s son, John, was a madman who murdered & mutilated four women 100 years before. Neil is also wary of Robert Delaware, a writer working on a biography of Sir Frederick, who seems to be making himself quite at home. Then, there are the alternate chapters written in the form of a diary by a governess who comes to Varley Castle & becomes emotionally involved with Sir Frederick.

When another woman is murdered in the same disturbing way, Wes & Gerry have almost too many suspects from the ex-boyfriend of Clare’s mother who had a grudge against her, to Analise’s employer who fancies younger women. As Neil & Wes recognize the similarities between the modern murders & those committed by John Varley 100 years before, more suspects emerge. Who could have known of these earlier crimes? Is there a copycat on the loose? Will the murderer feel compelled to match or exceed John Varley’s crimes? Throw in Wesley’s ex-boss from the Arts & Antiques Squad at the Met coming down to Tradmouth on the trail of a group of forgers smuggling in fake Egyptian antiquities & you have more subplots, motives & suspects than I could hope to keep straight!

The Jackal Man is an absorbing thriller with enough tension to keep any lover of crime fiction up until the small hours. The personal relationships of the police team are also involving. Wes is a young man who joined the police after his university studies. He’s calm, intelligent & compassionate. Married to Pam, a harassed teacher who complains about the hours he works & juggles her work with looking after their two young children & coping with her tearaway mother, Della. Gerry Heffernan has settled in Tradmouth after living in Liverpool. His children are grown & he’s recently found love with Joyce, a widow who shares his love of choral singing. Wes & Gerry have a great friendship & working relationship. Wes’s friendship with Neil often provides clues to the case of the moment & the historical & archaeological threads of the plot are well-balanced.

The historical murders in The Jackal Man are inevitably compared to the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper & coincidentally I’ve just finished listening to an audio book on a similar theme. It’s surprising really as I don’t enjoy books about serial killers, fiction or non-fiction, so to find myself reading two at once was unusual. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin is a pastiche of the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story takes the form of a manuscript by Dr Watson, embargoed until 50 years after his death. When the manuscript is revealed in the 1970s it proves to be an account of the Jack the Ripper killings with Holmes on the trail of the murderer. Narrated by Robert Glenister (one of my favourite narrators), this is a wonderful story. Dibdin has reproduced the tone, language & atmosphere of the original stories perfectly. There are enough details of the Holmes stories to satisfy the purists & Dibdin has done a fine job of recreating Victorian London & the character of Watson, as well as the style of Conan Doyle. Robert Glenister’s narration was terrific, as always. I haven’t read any of Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen thrillers but I’ve had another of his novels, A Rich Full Death, set in 19th century Florence & concerning Robert & Elizabeth Browning, on my shelves for far too long. I’ve moved it a bit further up the tbr pile now.


  1. I don't know why I haven't read more of these because we are great 'Time Team' fans in this household. I must do something about it. Have you read any of her other series, the one set so clearly in York, although that isn't what she calls the city? There's a new one of those just out and I think the library may have it in for me. I must call today and see. I can't remember, have you read Elly Griffiths? She writes about a forensic archaeologist and I think is one of the most original voices around in crime fiction at the moment. If you haven't you really do need to start with the first one,'Crossing Places', or you will spoil some of the plot lines.

  2. Annie, I've read her other York series (haven't got hold of the latest one yet but it's on order at work) but I'm not as fond of Joe as I am of Wes & Gerry. Still, we're only 2 books in so he could grow on me. I have read Elly Griffiths & like her very much. I have her latest on the tbr pile at the moment. Love Ruth & Harry & their relationship.

  3. Great review. These books sound terrific, Lyn. I don't know why I've never heard of them. Well, yes I do, maybe I just haven't been paying attention. I'm adding them to my TBR Mountain, for sure.

  4. Yvette, it's an excellent series. I always try to read them slowly but just race through in a couple of sittings & then have a year to wait for the next one. There are about a dozen in the series so if you enjoy them you have plenty to go on with.