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Four Trowels

THE JACKAL MAN

By: Kate Ellis
Piatkus Publishing:  London
2011 (HC)

In this, the fifteenth novel in the Wesley Peterson mysteries, Kate Ellis explores the dark side of family relationships and whether evil can be handed down through the generations.  This brooding novel opens with the attempted strangulation of a young woman, Clare Mayers, on a lonely Devon road as she walks home from a local pub.  The attacker is interrupted; Clare lives, and under police questioning her damaged vocal chords allow her to mutter, “Dog’s head” to the DC Trish Walton, the investigating officer, and colleague to DI Wesley Peterson.  Circumstantial evidence seems to point to Clare’s ex-boyfriend, Alan James, as the assailant. 

Meanwhile, Wesley’s college chum and best friend, County Archaeologist Neil Watson has been hired by Caroline Varley, heiress to Varlet Castle, and the fabulously extensive Egyptian collection that takes up much of the rambling old building’s square footage.  Caroline hopes to deed over the castle and perhaps the collection to the National Trust, but first wishes to ascertain the depth and breadth of the collection and its value.  The vast array of artifacts had been collected by Caroline’s great grandfather, the Victorian era industrialist and adventurer, Sir Frederick Varley. As it happens, and somewhat to Neil’s growing irritation, a local semi-successful writer named Robert Delaware has taken up residence at the castle as he researches and attempts to write a biography of Sir Frederick.   

While providing background information to Neil on the castle and its history, Caroline admits that it had also frightened her, even as a little girl, and off-handedly mentioned that her great-uncle John Varley, son of Sir Frederick, had, according to historic accounts, killed four women before hanging himself on the castle grounds.  Neil agrees to undertake the inventory but because his archaeological experience lies in areas other than Egyptology, he seeks out and receives the expertise of Dr. Andrew Beredace of the British Museum, who hastens to join Neil at the Dartmoor castle. 

Meanwhile, Wesley Peterson’s life becomes more complex as his former supervisor from the Metropolitan (London) Arts and Antiquities Squad seeks Wesley’s aid in breaking up a ring of criminals traced to Devon who have been trafficking in Egyptian antiquities—even as a second assault on a young woman is reported.  But this time the attack is brutally successful and the young woman, an au pair working for a locally prominent family is found garroted and disemboweled, with a carved figure of Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god of death next to the body.  Clare Mayers, the surviving earlier victim, readily identifies the carved figurine’s likeness to the “dog’s head” her assailant was wearing when he attacked her.  The killer seems to be following the practices and patterns followed for the mummification of dead in ancient Egypt and dons the jackal head for purposes of anonymity, ritual and terror—or all three.   

While Andrew Beredace busily inventories the Varley Castle Egyptian treasure trove, Neil finds himself drawn inexorably to the mystery of John Varley’s crimes around the turn of the 20th Century.  His researches uncover a startling fact:  the female victims of John Varley were garroted and disemboweled in the very same fashion as the victim in his friend Wesley’s latest case!   

The situation grows even direr as a third young woman is attacked and killed—with all assaults taking place within a three-mile radius.  Neil reports his historical researches to Wesley and the police now realize that someone is repeating the crimes of John Varley, committed more than one hundred years earlier—and there will likely be more unless they can stop him at once. 

I have stated in previous reviews of this series that Kate Ellis simply gets better with each new novel—and The Jackal Man is no excerption.  It is tightly written, the drama and intensity build with each turn of the page, and the red herrings she strews about leaves the reader delightfully bewildered until the stunning and at least for this reader, completely unanticipated denouement.  I do wish however that Ms. Ellis would focus a bit more on archaeologist Neil Watson.  Even after fifteen books, he remains something of a cipher.  We’ve learned much about Wesley Peterson and his background and family—and he is a very sympathetic and understatedly heroic protagonist—but it would be interesting to learn more about Neil.   

But as always, four trowels for Kate Ellis’s most recent Wesley Peterson mystery!         

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.