Pegasus Books, 286 pages, $15.95 (c2015)
“The Language of the Dead” is subtitled, “A World War II Mystery.” The war is mostly a supporting character in this book, because the mystery comes down to base human nature, not national disagreements. But it doesn’t help that there are bombers flying overhead at night, with everyone on edge waiting for the bombs to fall.
Chief Inspector Lamb is a phlegmatic, upstanding member of the police. His biggest worry is that his eighteen-year-old daughter, Vera, is an air-raid warden in a small neighboring town. She is independent, spunky, and insistent on her right to be an adult. Even when a bizarre murder not related to her occurs, Vera still occupies Lamb’s thoughts.
A witch lies dead, his body perforated by a pitchfork and a scythe. At least Will Blackwell was rumored to have been a witch. Mostly, he was a recluse, with not much to his name. He was cared for by his niece and worked sometimes for a nearby neighboring farmer. There wasn’t much going on in his life and much too much going on in his death. What could he have done to incur such enmity?
Stephen Kelly’s book moves slowly through the process of uncovering the life of a small village to find what Blackwell’s connections were to other residents. Does his death have anything to do with the death of a young woman almost a hundred years ago, the subsequent disappearance of his niece, or a young, almost-mute boy who wanders freely and stealthily around the countryside?
More to the point, is there a current threat to young women? What about Vera? She has met a young man, Arthur Lear. He has lost an arm in the war and it has made him hesitant and too self-aware. Is there any reason why Vera can’t establish a relationship with him? Is she in jeopardy living alone in a small and somewhat isolated town.
Bombs are exploding all around, not all of them dropped by planes.
Kelly has developed some intriguing characters. Although Lamb is not on the frontline of this war, he has his own demons from the last war to end all wars. He loves his family and is more than competent at his job. Even after an old acquaintance is placed under his command under less than auspicious circumstances, Lamb perseveres. There is more at stake than discomfort caused by something that happened in the past.
A good read, even if the conclusion is a bit expected.