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by Kate Ellis
Piatkus, January 2004
320 pages
ISBN: 0749906685

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE PLAGUE MAIDEN, by Kate Ellis, is the eighth Wesley Peterson cozy-ish police procedural set in Tradmouth, a fictional town in the West Country. As with other novels in the series, modern day cases are linked to archaeological excavations taking place in the area. OK, so it's really not likely that this would happen eight times to the same characters, but I enjoy this series and prefer to space out my reading of the books and not dwell on that.

Neil Watson and his team are excavating Pest Field, which is to become the site of the next Huntings supermarket, and discover a large number of skeletons. Given the name of the field may be a contraction of Pestilence, he suspects that he has uncovered a Plague Pit, where numerous bodies were dumped during a medieval epidemic.

This is unexpected, and Neil sets out to find out more about the site's history, and that of the local church, not without meeting some violent resistance. As they seek to locate the geographic boundary of the burials, a test pit is dug, but this time the skeleton found is clearly 20th century, and so DI Wesley Peterson, Neil's flatmate from university days, and his team investigate.

The victim is quickly identified as a young woman who went missing 12 years previously, shortly after the murder of the local vicar -- a case in which new evidence has separately come to light that strongly suggests the wrong man was convicted of the crime and that the police have serious questions to answer. As if that wasn't enough, another branch of the Huntings supermarket chain has been receiving threats that their stock will be poisoned. What, if anything, links all these crimes?

There is an awful lot of coincidence in this book, and at times I found it a little hard to swallow, but swallow I did because the complex interweaving plots were compelling and I really wanted to find out the history of the old burials, and the resolution of the modern murders. I wasn't disappointed in either the telling or the conclusion.

Although I've missed a couple of episodes in the series, it was good to meet the main characters again. It's nice to meet a police force that by and large contains no monsters, and where everyone gets along pretty well. I found Wesley particularly interesting this time as he is clearly having some doubts about his marriage and I thought this was handled with some subtlety. The supporting cast of characters and suspects were vividly brought to life, both distinctive and memorable.

If you're prepared to suspend some disbelief at the coincidences, and if you like a little armchair archaeology and historical research along with your murders, then THE PLAGUE MAIDEN is a very enjoyable read. I was hooked.

Reviewed by Bridget Bolton, March 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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