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Four Trowels

THE SHADOW COLLECTOR

By: Kate Ellis
Piatkus:  London, England
2013 (HC)

Lilith Benley has been released from prison after serving eighteen years for the brutal murders of teenagers Gabby Soames and Joanne Trelisip and has returned, some say inexplicably, to her rural smallholding aptly named Devil’s Tree Cottage.  The horror of the crime was exacerbated by Lilith and her complicit mother feeding the bodies of the girls to their pigs to hide the evidence.  Despite protestations of innocence, the evidence against the two avowed white (Wiccan) witches was overwhelming, and Lilith and Dorothy Benley were convicted. 

Literally within days of her return to the bucolic environs of West Fretham, Devon, and Devil’s Tree Cottage, a young investigative reporter is found stabbed to death with an athame, a Wiccan ceremonial knife, on the farmstead adjacent to Devil’s Tree Cottage.  DCI Jerry Heffernan, who was involved as a young detective in the investigation of Lilith eighteen years earlier, and Detective Inspector Wesley Peterson, begin their inquiry into this latest crime that seems to again point to Lilith Benley. 

At the same time, Wesley’s best friend, archaeologist Neil Watson is on a moonlighting task, directing the excavation of the basement of Mercy Hall, the home of Harriet and Evan Mumford, located near West Fretham.  The Mumfords hope to renovate the old mansion, rumored to have been the home of a witch executed in the 17th century, and they need an archaeological survey to comply with historic preservation guidelines.  Excavations unearth small coffin-like containers holding waxen “witch dolls” and the tiny skeleton of a new-born child.  As if to bear witness to the potency of the witch dolls, Neil is badly injured in an automobile accident as his brakes give out on his way home from Mercy Hall. 

Wesley and Jerry Heffernan turn their undivided attention to the case against Lilith Benley, but the situation grows murkier as evidence indicates that Boo Flecker, the slain journalist, may have been investigating participants in a reality television program being shot at Jefford Farm, adjacent to Devil’s Tree Cottage.  The possible subjects of her inquiry—a game show host desperate for a showbiz comeback and an over-the-hill boy band pop star—might be willing to take extreme measures to end Boo’s probing.  And while the finger of guilt must inevitably point to Lilith as a recidivist killer, her denial of any wrong-doing and her appeals for help because she is now the victim of break-ins and thievery begins to resonate with Wesley. 

The investigation continues and more possible suspects emerge as entangling relationships are revealed and each new development seems to obscure the crime and makes its solution ever less likely. 

Kate Ellis has masterfully taken two apparently very separate story lines—the murders in the present and the archaeology of a house steeped in rumors of witchcraft in its past—and has woven a seamless plot.  Page by page, chapter by chapter, the threads of these two stories converge and the continuity of evil over more than 250 years is revealed.  Kate Ellis has proven herself to be a master storyteller in the previous sixteen Wesley Peterson mysteries and The Shadow Collector reinforces that fact.  Even after all the red herrings have been dismissed and the surprising killer of Boo Flecker is revealed, Ms. Ellis has one more stunning revelation that fairly leaves the reader astounded. 

Four trowels for the seventeenth Wesley Peterson mystery, The Shadow Collector.   

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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.