Bibliophile reviews Ritual Murder (mystery) by S.T. Haymon

Series detective: Inspector Ben Jurnet
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1982
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, contemporary
Number of murders: 1
Some themes: Religion, drug-dealing, anti-Semitism, social injustice
Awards: The (British) Crime Writer's Association Silver Dagger Award, 1982

Story: A choirboy is found murdered in the cathedral of Angleby (a fictional town based on Norfolk) and signs on the body indicate that someone wanted to recreate the murder of Little Saint Ulf, whose holy bones are buried under the church and whose death had sparked a mass murder of the Jewish inhabitants of medieval Angleby. Ben Jurnet, who has now made a decision in the matter he was considering at the end of Death and the Pregnant Virgin (important for the story), is called in to investigate. He soon finds out that no-one seems to have liked the murdered boy much, but neither does anyone seem to have hated him enough to kill him. The murder sparks a riot by British nationalists, and two groups within their ranks start fighting for supremacy, with people Jurnet cares for getting caught in the (metaphorical) cross-fire. The solution of the mystery is a shock to everyone.

Review: This is a really good mystery. Not only is it hard to figure out – although certain bells had started ringing some before the end I only really realised who the killer was at the same time Jurnet finally did, near the end – but it is also well written. The plot is evenly paced and never flags, and the side-stories, one a lesser crime mystery, the other a tragedy, are both very good and are woven seamlessly into the main mystery near the end. The solving of the case here is much less intuitive than in the previous book, and is mostly the result of painstaking investigation and questioning of witnesses, but still it is hard to figure out what the solution is. Even an experienced mystery reader may be excused for being totally surprised by the final twist.


Rating: A suspenseful mystery that mingles together several storylines in the best tradition of master storytelling. 4+ stars.

Author review: S.T. Haymon
The two books I have read by S.T. Haymon are of a quality that should by rights have made her a classic author, but for some reason they haven't. These two novels are of a better quality than many mysteries I have read which have been reprinted over and over. Perhaps Haymon's work gets worse in the following books, or perhaps it was because she was not prolific (for a mystery writer), only producing 8 mysteries in a writing career spanning 16 years (she died in 1996). However that may be, all her books seem to be out of print, which is a pity because I want more. She delves into the mysteries with vigour and goes deeper into issues that come up in relation to the crimes her detective investigates than many authors do, and her characterisations are realistic and well-drawn. The language of the books is somewhat literary and the vocabulary may be occasionally challenging for a non-native speaker, which is by no means a bad thing.

Readers who have read both this book and the previous one in the series may well think Haymon the worst sort of atheist, with her obvious disdain and cynicism towards organised religion, but it seems to me that she is a true believer in God, but at the same time too much of a cynic to fully accept the trappings of organised religion.

While these two books are firmly in the tradition of the English village mystery where setting is concerned, the atmosphere in both is more sinister than what you would expect, for example, from Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, both of which have been evoked by previous reviewers when discussing Haymon. There is a dark cynicism at work in both books that makes them seem more real than the works of those two classic mystery writers, who have, in most of their works, seemed to me to be rather light-hearted about it all. Because the lead character is a policeman, he is involved in more than one case at every given time, and not all the crimes he investigates are fully solved, something that would be unthinkable in Christie or Sayers or most modern cosies.

All in all, I can heartily recommend at least Death and the Pregnant Virgin (unfortunate title, but a good mystery nonetheless) and Ritual Murder. I have the third book in the series as well, which seems to be a take on the country house mystery: Stately Homicide. We will have to see if it lives up to the expectations raised by those two.

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