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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Dead Man’s Lane by Kate Ellis

May 1, 2020

Piatkus Publishing:  London
2019 (HC)

Real estate developer Joe Hamer has undertaken the construction of a luxury holiday village at the Jacobean-era Strangefields Farm, a dilapidated but historically significant property, located along the ominously-named Dead Man’s Lane, when one of his laborers discovers a skull in the old manor house basement.  Neil Watson and his crew from the Devon County Archaeological Unit are called in by his old friend Detective Inspector Wesley Peterson of the Tradmouth Criminal Investigation Department search out the site for more possible remains.

Their excavations unearth three very unusual burials—be-headed skeletons with the hearts removed and two of the three have their skulls tucked between their legs and heavy stones resting upon the torsos.  Neil recognizes this macabre practice dating back centuries—in the case of the three skeletal remains, the late 17th Century– as superstitious folk sought to protect themselves from revenants—the undead who came back to haunt the living.

This then is the recurring theme of this, the twenty third volume in Kate Ellis’s consistently enthralling Wesley Peterson mystery series—individuals thought long dead apparently returning to life.  For Strangefields Farm’s ghastly history did not end in the 17th Century; twenty years earlier artist Jackson Temples had been convicted of killing four teenage girls he had lured to the farm to serve as models for his lurid portraits.  He had maintained his innocence but the preponderance of evidence against him had left no doubts in the minds of jurors.

Meanwhile Wesley and his colleagues from the Tradmouth CID find themselves inundated by a wave of crime.  Numerous retirees in Tradmouth and environs have been cleverly burgled, and one pensioner, retired teacher Bert Cummings, is found murdered, perhaps as he came upon the burglars.  The unclothed body of Linda Payne, a local flower shop proprietor and amateur community actress, is discovered in a nearby nature reserve.  Her death by head wound, strangulation and face mutilation mimics the modus operandi of Jackson Temples’ murderous assaults two decades earlier.  But Temples is “safely” behind bars, serving out a thirty-year murder sentence.  The death of Linda Payne appears even more bizarre when Wesley discovers that the victim is actually Jackson Temples’ half-sister!  The carnage continues unabated as a third murder victim is discovered, this a man thought to be long dead!

As readers have come to expect of a Wesley Peterson novel, the cat’s cradle of disparate plotlines, clues and red herrings conceived by Kate Ellis are slowly and ingeniously pulled together and a complex murder mystery moves to an ingenious conclusion — in this case informed by the journal of a 17th Century English gentleman, the excavations of Neil Watson’s intrepid archaeology crew, and the tenacious detecting of Wesley Peterson and his CID colleagues.

Three trowels for the latest entry in this out-standing series.