“There’s something in those woods that shouldn’t be there…”
Jack Halden, writer and sometime-sleuth, is intrigued when he hears the story of Birchen Bower. While having a break in the country with his cousin Isabelle, he meets Tom Jago. Jago is a Californian businessman who purchased the estate, only for his assistant, who was sent on ahead to prepare the house for Jago’s arrival, to disappear, along with a fortune in diamonds belonging to Jago’s wife.
Things soon turn serious when a local legend springs to life. One of the previous owners of the estate brought the so-called Jaguar Princess from overseas to England, and her ghost has long been rumoured to haunt the forest nearby. When a body, mauled to death by a large animal, is found, it seems that the Princess has returned, or, failing that, a savage beast of some description is loose in the woods. But is a human hand guiding the beast? And where will it be guided to next?
This is the eleventh Jack Haldean novel by Dolores Gordon-Smith. Those of you lucky enough to have attended the Bodies From The Library conferences will know Dolores as one of the most entertaining of the regular speakers, even – almost – convincing me to give Ernest Bramah another try. She is clearly a student of classic crime mysteries, as evidenced by her talks and – well – this series of mystery novels. And this one in particular.
This is one hell of a way to start my year’s reading – if I’d managed to get the review up before the end of last year, it would easily have made it into my “Best Of” post, and without exaggeration, it would have been vying for Book Of The Year. Because it is that good.
Where should I start? Well, let’s gloss over how enjoyable Dolores’ prose is, as well as her skill with distinctive characters and a believable lead – or perhaps leads as Betty, Jack’s wife, takes a fair chunk of the spotlight too. Jack is far from infallible, as shown in the section in the chapel – I won’t spoil this outstandingly creepy section, but as the realisation dawns that he may well have been totally wrong about what he is up against, the reader is forced to rethink things as well. It’s edge of the seat stuff, wonderfully written.
And the basic structure of the problem Jack finds himself up against is beautifully judged as well. When the villain is presented as a possible ghostly werejaguar, the reader knows it won’t have a supernatural solution, as classic crime doesn’t do that (apart from, most notably, THE BLANKING BLANK) but the reader needs to decide where to place their suspicion. Is there an actual jaguar, tame or otherwise, out there? Is someone human mauling corpses for some reason? By having questions even at that level, it helps keep the reader guessing and looking the wrong way.
And was I looking the wrong way? Well, when the villain is revealed, I almost got whiplash! While it made perfect sense as Jack explains to the villain exactly what they had been up to – much to the villain’s annoyance, in another wonderfully pitched scene – with so many little bits suddenly making sense. This is so well crafted, with one particular piece of misdirection late on being beautifully constructed…
I know this book won’t be easy to find, if you don’t have access to a UK library – and if you’re in the UK, do use your local library – but as you just might be able to guess, I think this is well worth your time. As I said, I really like Dolores’ books, but this one is easily her best – one of the best mysteries that I’ve read in ages in any subgenre.
The Chapel In The Woods was released in hardback and ebook from Severn House on 30 December 2021 in the UK.
The Jack Haldean Mysteries: