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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Mechanical Devil by Kate Ellis

April 1, 2019

Piatkus Publishing:  London
2018 (HC)

For more than twenty years Kate Ellis has successfully piqued the interest of mystery readers with her Wesley Peterson Murder Mystery series.  In twenty two volumes, she has intertwined the investigations of contemporary crimes by Detective Inspector Wesley Peterson of the Tradmouth, Devon CID with the archaeological inquiries conducted by Wesley’s best friend and college roommate, Neil Watson.  Common sense would indicate that the continued utilization of this literary strategy would at some point grow trite and tired.  But Ms. Ellis has avoided that pitfall as each new entry in the series brings a freshness and imagination that never fails to engage the reader.

The Mechanical Devil spins a complex and highly satisfying tale of deception, jealousy, hatred and murder.  The disappearance of the alienated daughter of an influential Member of Parliament appears to be related to the execution-style killings of a successful event planner, a prototypical British hiker and a pseudo-cleric.  Are they truly related or is it coincidence that all the killings took place near Lower Torworthy, the bucolic village located on the edge of Dartmoor?  As Wesley Peterson and his colleagues painstakingly follow all the possible threads of evidence that might aid them in solving these crimes, archaeologist Neil Watson and his crew are investigating medieval graffiti in the ancient church at Lower Torworthy—graffiti  that treats of medieval superstition and protective symbols.  His attention is distracted, however, when a relatively small but heavy leaden box is exposed by workers repairing a water main adjacent to the church.  The vicar asks Neil to investigate, fearing the box might contain human remains that have been interred in unconsecrated soil.  The box does not, in fact, contain human remain but something even more mysterious:  a carved figure with elaborate mechanical gears within its body—an automaton in the guise of a monk dating back to the era of Henry VIII and the English Reformation!  Neil’s curiosity leads him to investigate church and village archival resources and ultimately to the unpublished dissertation of a Ph.D. candidate in history from Exeter University that begins to shed light on the strange automaton.  The criminal inquiries of Wesley and his staff seem to converge in some puzzling way with Neil’s research when he learns that the historian died under questionable circumstances some twenty years earlier at the very location of the first two execution-style killings under investigation by Wesley and company.  A coincidence?  Veteran policemen like Wesley Peterson tend to not believe in coincidences!

What follows is an intriguing police procedural as the many disparate threads of evidence are stitched together to lead the Tradmouth CID (and the reader) to a most unexpected killer, and a number of ancillary but related crimes committed over the course of decades.  Neil’s archaeological investigation of the little automaton also expose a dark underside to the medieval history of Lower Torworthy and to murder committed more than five hundred years ago, driven by passions not dissimilar to those behind Wesley’s contemporary case.

Four trowels for Kate Ellis’s twenty-second outstanding Wesley Peterson mystery!