IN THE quiet cathedral city of Hilford, Father John has increased the congregation by 69.3 per cent (he’s counting) by putting on services that are delightfully unpredictable or, as his detractors would say, gimmicky and centred on the priest and not the message. His congregation love him, but can’t understand why he will not shake their hands.
Fred Vestal is a young award-winning journalist, down on secondment from a tabloid in London to wake up the local paper.
When he deliberately sensationalises an innocent church play about St George as a danger to children, and is found dead, the priest is an obvious suspect, not least because he has disappeared. Ruth Rendell is always the touchstone for any murder story set in a sleepy country town, and this is good enough to be one of hers.
Northey shares her gift for characterisation, with two particularly good strong women in Archdeacon Babs and the Chief Superintendent Barbara, the faces of the 21st-century Church and police. His flawed priest and ostensibly beefy, ex-rugby-playing bishop, with his Machiavellian cunning, are beautifully drawn, and there’s a highly entertaining set piece when the bishop courteously stonewalls the two police officers questioning him to the point where one of them contemplates an actual murder. The author also poses some important questions about where press freedom should finish, and how far the Church should go in attracting worshippers.
The plot is beautifully developed. Just when you think the murderer is obvious, and all that is necessary is to work out how it happened, the writer shakes out another fold in his complex tapestry and your expectations are confounded again. There are surprises right up to the last few pages. In the end, the death does hinge on a handshake. And that’s all I’m saying.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
Shake Hands or Die
Matador £8.99 (978-1-78589-837-2)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10