Blood on the Bones is the 9th book in British author Geraldine Evans’ Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy mystery series and it makes for a very absorbing read. This is a crime novel with depth and substance, which exchanges cheap thrills for some very meditative ruminations on religious faith and doubt. A body has been discovered buried in the gardens of the Carmelite Monastery of the Immaculate Conception. Detective Inspector Joseph Rafferty, a lapsed Catholic of long repute, is assigned to the case and finds himself confronting the demons of his own harsh Catholic upbringing. Could one or more of the sisters have been capable of bashing in the skull of the murdered victim? Or perhaps it was one of the former boyfriends of the novice and postulant in residence? Then again, both the visiting doctor and the local parish priest, Father Roberto Kelly, ‘the greatest sinner in the parish’, had access to the keys to the monastery gates and both men have many secrets to hide. As Inspector Rafferty follows the tangled clues in the case, he finds himself confronting his own religious and spiritual yearnings. Is a spiritual awakening on the horizon or even a full re-conversion to his Catholic past? Hardly likely for the astute, acutely rational Rafferty. But then one never knows. This case is bringing to the surface more questions than the simple ‘whodunit’.
A Very Normal Man
It is de rigueur in a crime novel review that one avoid all spoilers (in peril of one’s life) and I will do my best to comply. It is apparent right from the beginning that Geraldine Evans is going to take her sweet time getting to the meat of the matter (though the body does appear early on). Either you are willing to accept her contemplative pacing or you can go shopping for the latest high flying shoot-em-up thriller. She herself is not going to change her methods to suit the winds of fashion and I quickly acquired a deep admiration for such integrity. Nonetheless, though the book is not a conventional page turner, I became so absorbed in the story and the characters that the pages were indeed flying by. Our guide through the labyrinthine twists of this cozy mystery is the carefully crafted character of Detective Inspector Joseph Rafferty, a man with his share of eccentric quirks and buried memories, but essentially a self-confident, rational, balanced human being. Like P.D. James and Donna Leon, among others, Ms. Evans has eschewed the fashionable route of the alcoholic investigator teetering on the brink of existential despair, near suicidal, hanging on to sanity by a thread. Rafferty is normal, whatever that word might mean, and I trusted him immediately. He has a tender, healthy love life with his live in partner, a few secrets from his past – which surface in a blackmailing subplot that adds richness to the characterization, a rather unpleasant, wealthy real estate magnum cousin, adding a touch of colorful venality to the family, and a mother fiercely loyal to her traditional Catholic faith. It is given to the mother to play the role of henpecker to the harried Inspector, lest he even think for a second of accusing one of those dear, faithful Carmelite nuns of bludgeoning a man to death. Rafferty is so charmingly intimidated by his mother’s harangues that he does every tricky thing he can to avoid them. Ms. Evans makes clear early on there will be little blood and gore in this story, but quite a bit of wit and humor. With the wit comes a subliminal message – terrible things happen, but life goes on, and is in fact a gift to be cherished.
Crimes of Church: A Balanced View
Inspector Rafferty is quite reluctant to get involved in the case of the buried body on the Carmelite monastery grounds because it conjures up for him painful memories of his own harsh Catholic upbringing and schooling. Rafferty is one of the many victims of the unhealthy side of a religious system, notoriously summed up in the phrase, Catholic Guilt. Sin, hellfire and damnation instead of mercy and forgiveness. And just to remind us that this conditioning is not simply a thing of the past, his mother surfaces to reinforce the message in ways both funny and chilling. As Rafferty must enter the monastery, inspect the crime scene and set about interviewing all of the nuns within the confines of the Catholic cloister, all of these painful, long buried scars of his Catholic past rise to the surface to haunt him. It soon becomes clear there is more than one crime under investigation here. There is the crime of the murdered man in the garden and there is the equally horrific crime of the destruction of a child’s hope and trust in life itself (if not in “God’) through an obsessive guilt ridden religious upbringing. There is also the specific crime of heaping unbearable, crippling guilt upon unwed mothers and desperate women who seek abortions, common crimes of England and Ireland’s Catholic past.
Then a very strange thing happens. At first Rafferty feels stifled by the atmosphere of the cloister, but as he begins to interview the nuns and comes to know some of them, he is struck by their natural warmth, humanity and good humor. Many of his preconceptions are shattered, especially in the presence of nuns who are quite capable of a bawdy joke or two. These are richly fulfilled and rosy cheeked woman, many in their sixties, yet with a spark of life that is rare and precious. Something is illuminating them from within and this certainly suggests a spiritual dimension that is authentic and true, and one that is flourishing within a Catholic institution. And so we are introduced to the second mystery of the novel, the solution to which I will not divulge. Alongside the task of discovering the criminal who bludgeoned the man in the garden and his or her motives for the crime, we are also faced with the mystery of Rafferty’s possible spiritual reawakening. Will he return to the faith of his Catholic childhood and warmly embrace a belief in a benevolent, providential ‘God’? Will a window open up in his soul and heal some of the scars of the past, or has he been permanently damaged by the ‘crimes’ of Church he experienced in his youth? Ms. Evans has presented a superbly balanced view, being eminently fair to all sides and all positions, and she has done so with a lighthearted touch that inspires hope without minimizing the damage of Catholic Guilt. I found this to be the most absorbing aspect of the whole novel. The buried body seems almost an excuse, albeit a very ‘fun’ one, for these much deeper reflections and explorations.
A Very Normal Life
After interviewing the nuns, Rafferty then leads us on a very intriguing series of forays into the lives of several other suspects, among them the former boyfriends of the postulant and novice in the Carmelite community (jilted lovers?) and the monastery doctor and parish priest, both men with dark secrets in their past. The parish priest, Father Roberto Kelly, is a rather nefarious character, but Ms. Evans has eschewed the fashionable ploy of making him a pedophile (though the issue is briefly mentioned, as is the maltreatment of young girls in Catholic convent homes for unwed mothers). Instead, he is portrayed as a rather rakish womanizer, naughty but not too repulsive. This is a very absorbing part of the mystery, but only if you are willing to be patient with its unfolding, because Ms. Evans avoids all unnecessary melodrama. Many crime novels have a heightened sense of reality to increase their sense of melodramatic thrill. Everything is painted in technicolor red. Blood on the Bones presents the facts of the case carefully and quietly, integrating them into the normal pattern of life. It is a gentle, contemplative presentation and readers seeking quick thrills will be most disappointed with this aspect of the book. It requires a thoughtful read. However, just as with the humor, there is a subliminal message here. Life for most of us – who are not in war zones or concentration camps – is not painted in lurid colors, and reading about horrid crimes should not become a method of escape. LIfe is life, with its occasional tragedies, its momentary joys and its long stretches of quite ordinary uneventfulness. Geraldine Evan’s writing style is marked by a wise maturity and restraint.
A Very Wicked Ending
However, as if not to disappoint, Geraldine Evans saves all her big guns for the denouement, which had me chuckling out loud. “Naughty, naughty,” I kept saying to the author while wagging my finger. It is both wickedly good fun and horrifically shocking, revealing a tortured, twisted, guilt ridden conscience (no spoilers here). Suddenly we understand all, including the state of Inspector Rafferty’s soul in his yearning for some kind of spiritual meaning. As he dons his (metaphorical) hat and saunters out of the monastery grounds, we know he is on his way to another murder investigation, where his customary good sense, rationality and self confidence will prevail. He may have been damaged by his Catholic upbringing, but his faith in the goodness of life itself remains undaunted. Life is to be lived and cherished, and catching the criminals is a necessary part of that cherishing. A very absorbing, contemplative murder mystery for those who have the patientce for it. It is not for everyone, but it was definitely for me.
A rousing, enthusiastic ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Geraldine Evan’s Official Author’s Page