Friday, July 15, 2016

The Devil in Bellminster: Review

The devil walks among you, for the devil is of your own making, a judgment upon you all, a terrible and dreadful chastisement!

The Devil in Bellminster (2002) by David Holland is a historical mystery novel set in the early 19th century English countryside. It takes place in the cathedral town of Bellminster. The town seems to be a quiet little world all to itself in the country, but even in the early 1800s there are petty little games of politics to be played and the lives of the innocent will be weighed against the sins of the guilty. A dark force has come among the people of the town--someone who believes they have a calling to weed out the sinful tares among the wheat. The first victim to be discovered is the sexton of the Cathedral--who would dare to kill one of God's servants? But Will Sharpton was no saint, often coming to work drunk, and perhaps the sin of drunkeness was what must be weeded out. More deaths follow and panic begins to take over the sleepy little town.

The local lord has called in a Bow Street Runner from London, but Detective Inspector Myles seems more intent on finding someone (anyone) to pin the murder on and quiet the hysteria. He views the truth as a very elastic commodity. The Reverend Tuckworth, lately the town's vicar and soon to be the Dean of Bellminster, seems to be all that stands between the good people of the town and the evil descending upon them. He is also the last hope of Adam Black, the developmentally backward young man that Myles has chosen for his scapegoat. If the good reverend cannot plumb the secrets of the true villain, an innocent man will hang. But Tuckworth has a secret of his own--a secret that he can't afford anyone to know. And it may be difficult to keep the secret in the face of the evil he must confront.

***********Possible spoilers in my thoughts below--although I've tried to be vague. Read at your own risk

This is a fairly solid mystery. I won't say historical mystery because therein lies my dilemma. Despite various descriptions, particularly about superstitions and religious beliefs, that were intended to make the reader believe they were in early 19th C England, there was very little that actually did make me believe it was so. It felt very much like this story could have been taking place at just about any time. And I spent way more time than necessary puzzling over the amount of a bribe mentioned in the novel--I just couldn't honestly believe that someone would have paid a gossipy old woman (probably intended to be viewed as a "witch" of sorts) four pounds during that time period for false testimony and then have her offered twice the amount to actually tell the truth (which she mysteriously turns down). I don't see a Bow Street Runner having that kind of money to throw around. Maybe I'm misjudging amounts--but Sherlock Holmes in the Victorian era was pretty generous when he paid for information and I can't remember him ever paying more than a sovereign--two at the most.

Tuckworth is an interesting character--particularly as the reader watches his struggle with his secret and his growing interest in the detecting occupation. He gets involved for all the right reasons--to make sure that justice is served and not just placated. It was very satisfying watching him learn to have faith in humanity even as he confronts the evil that men do.

I will say that the culprit should have been more obvious to me given the circumstances surrounding the murders and trends in the mystery field when religious beliefs seem to play a major role. I was hung up by the fact that I really wanted a certain person to be the murderer and it was possible...though not as likely, I admit. Just goes to show that one should not allow prejudice to dictate one's detecting. ★★


fredamans said...

This one sounds like it would make a great film.

J F Norris said...

Intriguing if a bit familiar. I have a problem with serial killer plotting set in the 19th century. Totally out of whack with the mindset of those times. Jack the Ripper notwithstanding who is something altogether different than a serial killer, IMO. I skipped over your "possible spoiler" section just in case I find this book at the CPL and I'm tempted to take it out and read it.