The violent death and ritual interment of an ancient Celtic warrior-king and the human sacrifices offered to accompany him into the afterworld serve as the macabre background to Angel of Death, the 11th entry in the Arnold Langdon mystery series. Landon is the same quiet, reserved, self-effacing bureaucrat working for the Northumbria Department of Museums and Antiquities that readers of this quaint series have come to know and grow fond of. He answers to an ineffectual buffoon of a boss, Simon Brent-Ellis, and now his new assistant director, the beautiful and enigmatic Karen Stannard who will prove to be Arnold’s nemesis in future novels.
The story begins as Arnold demonstrates his ability to bureaucratically outmaneuver Stannard and thereby gains permission, at the urgent request of York University archaeologist Dr. Rena Williams to take a part-time leave of absence to participate in the excavation of a Romano-Celtic site near Garrigal. The bureaucratic victory maybe a Pyrrhic victory, however, as Arnold may have acquired a dangerous enemy in the person of Karen Stannard.
The usually cool and dispassionate Arnold Langdon finds himself in uncomfortable emotional territory when, from the very start, he senses a potent evil and dread permeating the site. The site, which includes a cave with an ancient shrine and a possible burial barrow, suggests the existence of a death cult marking the burials of important personages. Arnold is introduced to the small but idiosyncratic excavation team – three young male graduate students (dubbed the Three Musketeers) and Elfreda Gale, a brilliant, acid-tongued, free-spirited and very sensual grad assistant. Rounding out the team is a senior scholar, the arrogant and completely self-absorbed Professor Geoffrey Westwood.
Westwood and Elfreda get into a blistering academic row during a cocktail gathering and dinner hosted by their wealthy patron Stephen Alston, on whose property, Hartshorn House, the site is located. While not an archaeologist or antiquarian himself, Stephen is the descendant of Sir Henry Alston, who some eighty years earlier discovered the legendary Fleetham Horde, one of England’s richest archaeological discoveries. While never able to match the grandeur of the Fleetham Horde, Sir Henry did accumulate a vast array of artifacts over his lifetime—the valuable Alston Collection.
Tensions reach the boiling point several times between Elfreda and Westwood and the entire crew begins to lose its cohesion and efficacy as a working team. Finally Rena Williams, in a desperate gambit to separate the two antagonists, sends Elfreda to do archival work at Hartshorn House and its rich library of antiquarian resources that may help them decipher the meaning of their excavation. Work continues apace and Arnold and his companions unearth three burials near the edge of the barrow. Shortly thereafter Elfreda, in a visit back on the site, discovers yet another burial, but this one proves to be perhaps no more than a half century old. The local constabulary is summoned but this particular cold case shows few signs of being solved and poor preservation offers few clues.
Within a few days the entire operation is sent into total chaos when Westwood discovers the lifeless body of Elfreda Gale and hysterically proclaims that she has been raped and murdered. The police re-entry the scene and quickly identify the prime suspects—obviously the pompous and self-aggrandizing Professor Westwood heads the lest, but upon further scrutiny, each of the Three Musketeers may have had more than just collegial relationships with the victim, and there is also a mysterious and unidentified bearded man that Arnold observed in an intense and heated exchange with Elfreda a few days before the horror occurred.
But it is a jadeite ring the Elfreda secretly discovered in close association with the fifty-year-old corpse she discovered that may ultimately be the link that joins the ancient barrow burials, the mysterious 20th century burial discovered by Elfreda, and her own violent death in a chain of violence and darkness on the grounds of Hartshorn House…violence that very nearly adds Arnold Landon to the list of victims of this ill-fated site visited far too often by the Angel of Death.
Three stars for this tidy little mystery, one to be savored on a frosty winter night in front of a warm and welcoming fireplace!