HarperCollins Publishers, London
Thanks to my elder son Nick’s perseverance in seeking out just the right Christmas present for me, I have been fortunate to acquire yet another Arnold Landon mystery. As I’ve noted in previous reviews, the Landon books– at least earlier editions-have gone out of print, and editions available on e-Bay or Amazon.com are very pricey. But Nick discovered that the British edition of Amazon.com had reasonably priced editions of these little gems and I was gifted with a very nice copy of The Shape-Shifter.
Arnold Landon is a rather quiet, self-effacing non-academic archaeologist who labors as a civil servant for the Northumberland Department of Museums and Antiquities. This polar opposite of Indiana Jones seems to spend more of his time contending with the idiocies and idiosyncrasies of the bureaucracy in which he labors, than he does in actual antiquities-related matters. I suspect this is a rather realistic representation of life in an English County bureaucracy.
When Arnold’s immediate supervisors are suspended during investigations of impropriety conducted by a county politician who seems to combine the charms of Joe McCarthy and Kenneth Starr, Arnold takes a leave of absence to escape the politics and the suspicions of his former supervisors that he was somehow involved in the witch-hunt to oust them. He volunteers to work on an excavation on the property of Haggburn Hall -what a great name for a stately house! -that seems to tie into stories concerning the ancient cult of Morrigan, the Shape-Shifter and Celtic deity of war. Author Roy Lewis does a magnificent job of describing this goddess as
…the great winged, female war deity of Irish legend, called Morrigan by some, the Shape-Shifter by others. She was violent and treacherous, and she interfered with the doings of men. She was able to take any shape she pleased – wolf, boar, stag, raven – but in the iconography she tended to be depicted as a woman with the head of a bull. She lent her aid to men in battle and then betrayed them; she promised victory and gave death; she bathed in blood and spread her raven’s wings across the battlefields of the Celtic world. She was revered and worshiped and feared – and the terror of her name spread dismay and despair throughout the land. She came on the cold, ancient winds and no man knew in what shape she would come, and in what form she would return. She was the Morrigan, who had destroyed the hero Cuchulain.
We are then treated to a classic stately home murder mystery of the old-fashioned cozy variety, when a young man, apparently unknown to any of the rather bizarre denizens of Haggburn Hall or the archaeology crew, is found bludgeoned to death near the excavation site. Arnold is drawn inexorably into the mystery as he alternately works with and spars against his old acquaintance Detective Chief Inspector Culpeper. The result is a very satisfying and enjoyable mystery that demonstrates that not all Shape-Shifters can be remanded to the misty past of Celtic lore and legend.