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Thursday, 10 October 2013
‘Mortal Spoils’ by D M Greenwood
‘Clerical’ mysteries have been around for a long time, and there are plenty to choose from. When you think about it, men (or women) of the cloth, veil and cowl and their equivalents in other religions are ideally placed to solve mysteries; their main focus is, or should be, how people tick, and their profession, calling, however you want to describe it, gives them pretty well free entry to most places.
One thing I like about the ones I’ve read is the authors’ propensity, through their protagonists, for casting a shrewd eye over the church itself and commenting wryly and clearsightedly on its many flaws and shortcomings. Theodora Braithwaite, deacon, curate and solver of mysteries in D M Greenwood’s 1990s series, is no exception.
The series has now been rediscovered by a small press which specializes in the resurrection of crime and thriller novels which, according to its website, ‘have unjustifiably become unavailable through the ravages of time or the forces of publishing economics’. And in the case of Theodora Braithwaite, I’m rather glad they went to the trouble.
Mortal Spoils is one of the later titles in the nine-book series, and Theodora has already built a reputation as a somewhat reluctant amateur detective. Her specialist help is requested by the young assistant administrator of Ecclesia Place, the Anglican Church’s (fictional) political headquarters, when he discovers, then loses, the body of a high-ranking bishop during a high-profile ecumenical gathering.
Church politics, it appears, are at least as complicated and riddled with guile and self-interest as the other kind; Theodora and Tom Logg, her temporary partner in detection, have to tread carefully around the sensitive toes of senior clergy, each with his own axe to grind. This gives the author plenty of opportunity to develop a cast of larger-than-life characters alongside the more normal ones. Theodora herself is refreshingly down-to-earth and sensible, aware of her own imperfections as well as other people’s.
Greenwood also has a keen eye for background and location; the rabbit-warren geography of Ecclesia Place comes across as clearly and effortlessly as the rather less salubrious neighbourhood near the River Thames in which both it and Theodora’s new home are situated.
A neatly constructed plot; an interesting character set; an adept sense of place. Add in a fluent style well laced with dry humour, and you’re left wondering why the series ever went out of print. I certainly was. Thank goodness for the courage and perception of small publishers.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
Dr Diane M Greenwood came originally from Norfolk in England. She took a first degree in classics at Oxford University, then as a mature student, a second degree in theology at London University. She taught at various schools before working for the diocese of Rochester. She retired as diocesan director of education for the diocese of Rochester in 2004.
She has been described as "a classics teacher of terrifying erudition and eccentricity". Between 1991 and 1999 she published nine books featuring Deaconess Theodora Braithwaite (in her thirties). D M Greenwood was last heard of living in Greenwich with her lurcher.
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.