Mystery author # 20: S.T. Haymon

Title: Death and the Pregnant Virgin
Series detective: Ben Jurnet
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1980
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural village in England, 1980’s
Number of corpses: 4
Some themes: Religion, greed, relationships

Picture pending.

Story: Five years before the beginning of the story, a dog digging in a badger run on the outskirts of the village of Mauthern Barbary unearthed a madonna statue thought to have been destroyed in the time of Henry VIII. The madonna, which looks more like an African fertility goddess than the usual demure Mary, is thought to give the gift of fertility to women who have been unable to conceive. On the fifth anniversary of the unearthing, thousands of couples flock to the village to pray to the madonna for her blessing. A young woman, Rachel Cass, works at the shrine and is loved and respected by all, some even claiming she is a saint. When the shrine is opened to the worshippers on the morning of the anniversary, Rachel is found inside with her head bashed in. Detective Inspector Ben Jurnet of the Norwich police happens to be there, and is given the task of leading the investigation. An autopsy reveals that Rachel was four months pregnant, but also that she was a virgin, which leads some people to speculate about a thwarted second coming. Three more deaths will ensue before a sentence in an old book and information gleaned from an old account book will finally lead Jurnet towards the truth. I am therefore counting this as a bibliomystery.

Review: This is a marvellous first book: well-plotted and well-written, with an interesting setting and believable characters. The setting is so beautifully dawn that you want it to be real, and the characters are rounded and human, which is for example seen in their different reactions to the madonna which range from ecstatic worship to repulsion.

The central theme of the story is religion and religiosity. The shrine and the village church are not just parts of the background, but play a part in the story, especially their respective guardians, the vicar and the finder of the statue. Neither is completely acceptable, the vicar being a repulsive character and the shrine guardian being slightly kooky, but the cult comes off as the better religion through being more benevolent and open than the rigid Christianity of the Church of England. Judaism is slightly involved as well, but you will have to read the book to discover in what way.

Ben Jurnet is a likeable character, and I wouldn’t mind reading more books about him, as he seemed about to make a momentous decision at the end of this book (which of course is a skilfully used classic hook). Jurnet, at least in this book, is a mixture of the deductive detective and the intuitive detective, meaning that while there is reasoning based on clues behind much of his detection, it is an intuitive flash that, supported by logic, finally allows him to solve the case. Since the reader is allowed to see all the clues and the intuitive flash, the story still plays by the rules, giving the reader an equal opportunity to solve the case.

There is a clever twist near the end that is teasingly foreshadowed several times in the course of the narrative, but in such a way as to make it very difficult to deduce the meaning of the clues. There is, therefore, a lovely “a-ha!” moment at one point which alone would make the story worth reading, even if the setting and the characters were not as enjoyable as they are.

All in all, I liked this book and will be on the lookout for more of Haymon’s work.

There will not be an author review until I have read at least one more Haymon book to compare with this one.

Rating: A suspenseful look at religion, murder, and greed. 4 stars.

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