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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis

August 1, 2015

Piatkus Publishers:  London
2014 (HC)

In this, the eighteenth Wesley Peterson mystery novel, author Kate Ellis continues her mastery of spinning tales of contemporary murder and mayhem that are intricately and integrally entwined with sins committed in the distant past.

The Shroud Maker takes place against the backdrop of the annual Palkin Festival, a tourist-driven event marking the era of John Palkin, a medieval entrepreneur, merchant and city mayor who loomed large in the history of Tradmouth, Ellis’s fictional version of South Devon’s Dartmouth.  The festival is not unlike similar civic phenomena found world-wide:  music, dancing, eating, performers and participants dressed in period-appropriate costumes, copious dinking and generally good-natured hell raising.  The locals might often find it annoying but the tourist dollars (or pounds sterling) are always most welcome.

But the festivities turn grim when a beautiful young woman in costume is found dead, floating in a dinghy on the River Trad, the victim of an obviously horrendous attack.  Her death is investigated by the Tradmouth police, headed up by DCI Gerry Heffernan and DI Wesley Peterson.  Adding to the gravity of situation is the realization that exactly one year earlier, the equally beautiful Jenny Bercival had disappeared during the Palkin Festival.  Both had been in medieval garb and both bore similar tattoos: a medieval-era square-sailed ship called a cog that had been part of John Palkin’s mercantile flotilla.  The emblem had become a ubiquitous insignia among many of the young revelers at the Palkin Festival.  The investigation reveals that the victim is not Jenny, but a musician named Kassia Graylem, who is a member of Palkin Musik, an ancient music ensemble performing at the Festival.  Wesley and associates may be seeking out a serial killer of young women.

At the same time, county archaeologist Neil Watson and his crew are excavating the original home and warehouse owned by John Palkin, at the behest on internet millionaire Chris Butcher.  Butcher has acquired the property and hopes to have the property restored but desires an archaeological survey first.  The excavation is proceeding according to plan until Neil discovers skeletal remains   buried in disturbed soil beneath the original medieval house!  Neil’s research efforts suggest that John Palkin may not have been the paragon of entrepreneurial virtue deserving a community festival in his name, but a violent, evil man capable of unspeakable cruelties.

Meanwhile the police investigation follows a convoluted trail of clues that lead to a yacht seen in the vicinity of the funereal dinghy and its owner who has mysteriously gone missing; the suspicious death of a private investigator hired to find Kassia Graylem; Kassia’s rumored romantic entanglement with a mysterious William de Clare, who is also a character in the virally popular fantasy website called “Shipworld,” based ostensibly on the life and times of John Palkin.  The website is graphically violent and depicts death scenes not unlike Kassia’s floating coffin and a dark figure called the “Shroud Maker,” an appellation given to John Palkin’s younger brother.

This particular thread of inquiry leads to the doorstep of a socially awkward young artist who produces the artwork for “Shipworld” at the behest, he claims of an internet presence known as Palkinson.  To further complicate the investigation, Wesley discovers that Chris Butcher is the producer of “Shipworld,” and that his interest in all things Palkin may be more than just historic interest.

The investigation methodically works toward a conclusion that neither Wesley nor his colleagues could have anticipated, but again underscores Kate Ellis’s themes that evil repeats itself down through the centuries and that the contemporary crimes investigated by Wesley Peterson often find their beginnings in the archaeological efforts of his old friend Neil Watson.

Four trowels for this latest Wesley Peterson novel.