The Devil’s Priest (2006) by Kate Ellis

1539, Liverpool, and as the country’s monasteries are being ransacked on the orders of King Henry VIII, events of a more smaller, but just as devastating, scale in the Northern port of Liverpool. Agnes Moore, a former novice, claims to have been attacked in the church of St Mary del Quay, but when her cries fall on the deaf ears of her uncaring relative, she writes to Lady Katheryn Bulkeley, her former abbess.

As Katheryn arrives, a priest is found floating in the River Mersey with his right hand hacked off and before Agnes can give up her secrets – including the name of her lover, a member of the clergy himself – she too is found floating in the river. Katheryn is determined to find the truth about what happened, but with more than one conspiracy abounding in the port, is there any chance of finding the killer?

I’ve had my eye on reading this for a long time but kept putting it off for a reason that I’ll come to in a moment. I’ve already mentioned a few time about the difficulty that I’m currently having settling into books, so more and more I’m sticking to well-trusted writers. Of course the problem is that I’ve read everything from most of my favourite writers. Anyway, this was the one outstanding novel from Kate Ellis. Not part of the Wesley Peterson, Joe Plantagenate or Albert Lincoln series (the 1539 setting kind of gives that away), this was actually the first novel that Kate wrote. To quote Kate on Twitter:

“A couple of publishers liked it back in the 1990s but said they already had enough monastic/Tudor detectives (these were the days of Brother Cadfael). I put it in a drawer and some years later someone offered to publish it independently. I thought ‘Why not?’”

I invested in a physical copy – there are a few affordable copies out there – and there is something about it that feels like an independent publication, apart from the rather drab cover. The problem is an inconsistent line spacing. Sometimes, when there is a switch of character and location, there is a double line space, as in most books. But it’s not always there, and I’d find myself having to jump back once I realised that things had changed. There is an ebook version available, by the way, but that one has double spacing between every paragraph!

Enough about the line spacing – I know that’s what you’re here to read about, but I ought to talk a little about the story. For a first novel, it’s remarkably strong and Kate created a strong central character in Lady Katheryn, displaced from her abbey by the dissolution of the monasteries and, to an extent, looking for a way to continue her good work. She makes a credible sleuth, and with a multi-layered mystery to deal with and a coterie of friends to help her, her investigations make an engrossing read.

I’ll be honest, I was expect more of a twist at the end, but clearly this is an aspect of her writing that Kate has honed in subsequent years – there is something clever in the solution but at the end of the day, there was a small sense of anti-climax with the identity of the villain. But I enjoyed the journey to that point very much indeed, so such things are easily forgiven.

I would have liked to see how things developed for Katheryn in the future – the ending seems to be putting certain elements in place for a sequel – but, alas, that is not to be. Still, this is a curiosity that Kate’s fans should hunt down to give it a try. For a debut novel (despite being published after the Wesley Peterson series was established) this is really rather good.

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