I was drawn to this book due to its central character, Reverend Faith Morgan, who prior to becoming a vicar, was a police woman; a career change which also resulted in the demise of her long term relationship with fellow police officer, Ben Shorter, who could not understand her desire to join the ‘God Squad,’ as he called it. A few years down the line though, Faith is looking for a change from her urban ‘gritty uncertain challenging’ parish, leading to her visiting the parish of St James in Little Worthy, whose vicar, Alistair Ingram is retiring. Little Worthy is close to where Faith grew up and her sister also lives there. This job prospect is not portrayed to Faith in a positive light, with some saying she’ll have ‘a congregation of eight – if you’re lucky – with an average age of seventy; a fund raising nightmare to crush the heart of a saint.’ Yet this sleepy backwater is anything but sleepy when the first chapter closes with a murder, the victim being Alistair who drinks from a poisoned chalice of wine during the communion service. Initially the congregation think it is a heart attack, but Faith’s old police training kicks in, noticing the signs of poisoning and she requests the police be called. Unfortunately of course this means a painful reunion of sorts as Ben is put in charge of the case. The atmosphere between them is quite charged with residual attraction and pain and Ben is not above a few acrimonious remarks.
A lunch with the Bishop provides Faith with further background to the deceased. Alistair came to ministry late in his life, after the loss of his wife to cancer. It is also mentioned that he was having a dispute with the neighbouring farmer, Trever Shoesmith over covenanted land. The fact the poison later turns out to be pesticide places suspicion more strongly on Shoesmith, although it would seem in such an agricultural area, more than one person was using the stuff, even the Bishop’s wife. But as Faith thinks, surely they won’t suspect her? During the investigation Faith and Ben dance around each other, stepping on each other’s toes many times, as they both try to do their jobs, though for Faith the difficulty is in deciding where her job ends and Ben’s begins. Their interaction does introduce a minor comic element to the story as they try to trump each other during the questioning of suspects and witnesses. Ben has a firm suspect, yet Faith is far from confident about it and ultimately it becomes a very painful and messy dead end, affecting both Ben and Faith. Despite being reproofed for her involvement (or rather over-involvement) in case by her sister, nothing will stop Faith from finding out the truth, even if it means putting her own life in peril.
Throughout the book it is hard for Faith to let go of her police past and she finds it difficult to not investigate especially when parishioners keep dangling morsels of information for her, information they would not want to tell the police, which is summed up perfectly here:
‘Alistair Ingram’s death had reawakened a part of her she thought she’d left behind. She… liked investigating; talking to people, analysing their expressions, reading their body language, peering into their lives; fitting together the broken puzzles of what they said and didn’t say, and why. She was good at it.’
This behaviour of hers is noticed by herself and some of the other characters such as Alistair’s son, Don (who incidentally did not get on with his father) and he calls her ‘Nancy Drew.’ Although she does try to rein in her detective side: ‘her conscience wrestled between curiosity and compassion. Compassion won.’ One of the key reasons why Faith moved out of the police force was due to her evolving perspective on humans, the suffering they endure and the suffering they cause for others. She cannot take the rigid line of thought Ben does and she even sees it as harmful, recalling one particular case of the past, where it went badly wrong. But on the other hand does her more humanitarian approach blind her from the way people really are?
One of the minor (in page space) relationships in the book is between Faith and her mother, who is a useful source of information on some of the suspects involved in the case and in some ways Faith’s mother does have a slight touch of Miss Marple about her in how she notices people and gives advice:
‘Her mother was looking right into her…
“But I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do…”
“Maybe it’s not a matter of guessing what the right way is… Maybe God wants you to be yourself and live life in your own way. We are supposed to be made in His image, after all.”
“That’s a profound thought, Mother”
“Thank you dear, I blame the sherry.”’
Overall I think Ockley gives a mature and nuanced depiction of Christianity, which does not remain stuck within crude stereotyping. Moreover, I don’t think she isolates non-Christian readers. I think a secondary plot to the novel and the series is one of Faith trying to find her way in life, balancing what she thinks is her purpose and her identity, with her relationships with others. After all there is a will they? won’t they? thread to her encounters with Ben and the reader is left wondering if they will be able to reconcile with each other. However, this aspect of the novel is not overplayed. The case brings them back together like old times but Faith’s well faith or at least her and Ben’s perceptions of it, for the first book at any rate, remains a constant spoke in the wheel. Although in the third person this book is from Faith’s point of view, which I think worked well, as we get to see her complex and opposing feelings about solving crimes and dealing with human suffering. Importantly she is not a holier than thou character, but down to earth, genuine and honest about her failings and doubts. She doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. The characterisation of this novel is one of its strengths as the characters are not straight forward. Emotional conflict is express well and pain manifests itself in many ways. Interestingly both Ben and Faith become sources of relief from this pain, despite their differing methods. The killer’s identity is hidden until near the end of the novel, although I think the reader will be able to spot a few key details before Faith does. However her realisation of the truth fills in more of the gaps surrounding the case. All in all definitely a book I would recommend and I am keen to read the other two books in the series: The Advent of Murder (2013) and A Saintly Killing (2014).