Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.
Author: Carla Neggers
Author: Carla Neggers
A convent on the rugged coast of Maine is the scene of a vicious murder in Carla Neggers’ new novel Saint’s Gate. With this book, Ms. Neggers also introduces a new series and two new protagonists, FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan. It is a dark mystery, full of intrigue and suspense. The characters are interesting, the locales spectacular, and the plot well constructed. Relax in your recliner, pour yourself a taoscan of fine Irish whiskey (see later why this is appropriate), and enjoy. It is fun to read. I read it in two evenings—it displaced all my other writing and reading activities.
I had the uncanny feeling that the author has a psychic hold over me—to use modern vernacular, she knew how to jerk my chains. First, the locales: the California and Maine coasts are my two favorite spots in the U.S. Except for climate, they are similar—waves pounding against steep, craggy cliffs topped with pines and other magnificent trees. Big Sur and Mt. Desert Island hold a special place in my travel memories. I grew up in California; my father painted its coastline. My first trips to Ogunquit and Bar Harbor left me yearning for more.
While Maine and California are like magnets to my soul, so is Ireland. Visitors to my website will see me in a famous old Dublin pub enjoying my Guinness stout. My laptop wallpaper is a picture I took of a beautiful lake in Ireland’s magical Killarney region. Memories of these places, of a visit to a local pub’s family night in Galway, and of the fog-shrouded Erin Island are ones I hope to keep alive even into my senility.
But I digress. Maine and Ireland are the locales of the story. The characters are also very interesting. Emma, an FBI agent specialized in recovering stolen works of art, is an ex-nun from the same convent where the murder takes place. Her family, dedicated private detectives in the same line of work, have offices in both Dublin and Heron’s Cove, the fictitious Maine town that is home to the convent. She becomes involved in the case when a nun at the Sisters of the Joyful Heart convent calls to ask her to consult on a mysterious painting. The nun is murdered; the painting disappears.
Colin, the tough, undercover FBI agent, comes from a large Irish-American family. Many scofflaws he’s tangled with think he’s dead—he wants to keep it that way. A local priest and Colin and Emma’s FBI boss convince Colin to look into the case and keep tabs on Emma, due to her close connection with the convent. Soon Colin becomes both suspicious of Emma and romantically attracted to her. Father Finian Bracken, the local priest, is in the background, offering encouragement and refreshment in the form of Bracken Distillers’ whiskey, an Irish brew that his family makes in Kerry.
The local priest is another multi-faceted character. On sabbatical for a year from Ireland and still trying to cope with tragedy in his own life, he pushes both Colin and Emma to solve the mystery. As they follow the trail of art and violence, it becomes clear that the killer plans to make sure neither of them will survive long enough to bring him or her to justice. Who is the killer? I winnowed the list down to two or three suspects early on. Ms. Neggers’ killer was on my list. However, I was a wee bit disappointed that my chief suspect didn’t make the cut. It would be unfair to you, the reader, to divulge who it is, according to the author. (I will only divulge my chief suspect to Ms. Neggers, if she’s interested.)
As a reader and young lad, I came to the mystery genre via the sci-fi master Isaac Asimov. Better known for his future history series (the Foundation series, robot series, and End of Eternity became one series by the end of his life), Mr. Asimov was also a prolific mystery writer. He was a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I was a fan of his Black Widowers stories. From Asimov I migrated to Agatha Christie and more modern mystery writers.
I still read mysteries and now review them (this book is an example). As I writer, I’ve dashed off a few short stories that were mysteries but was never successful at writing a mystery novel. Having a theoretical knowledge of what is needed is not enough—you have to possess very special creative skills. Ms. Eggers has it. She is a master of mystery writing. The plot in Saint’s Gate has a delicious fractal nature to it. The reader is led up and down multiple threads of intrigue. As I stated above, there are several possibilities for the killer. While it’s possible that I just missed some clues, I didn’t know precisely who he or she was until the very end.
Irish heritage also plays an important role in this novel. Irish saints and their Viking tormentors are more important than the Irish locales, in fact. Probably not enough is made of the fact that the Irish monks were largely responsible for saving civilization from the hordes of invaders of an unstable medieval Europe (see Thomas Cahill’s little book How the Irish Saved Civilization). Many clues to the mystery are associated with one particular Irish saint. While my favorite Irish saint is St. Brendan for his legendary navigational feats, I have always been fascinated by the Irish melding of Celtic folklore with the teachings of the Vatican. I recognize that some readers might find this boring, though, so caveat emptor.
The description of distilling whiskey is a bit lacking. Most of my knowledge of the process comes from a tour I made of the old Jameson distillery in Dublin (12-year Jameson’s is one of my favorite Irish whiskeys). Over the years, I have added to that knowledge a bit. I understand the following: bourbon whiskey is once distilled, Scotch whiskey twice, and Irish whiskey three times. Moreover, Scotch is stored in wine barrels that have been fired inside, giving it that smoky taste, while Irish whiskey is stored in wine barrels that have not been fired inside, the red wine residuals still imparting a slight flavor during the process. As a consequence, when Ms. Eggers treats the three equally, she’s comparing apples to oranges to pears. In particular, Tennessee whiskey is no substitute for fine Irish whiskey.
If you don’t care about too many saints and confused information about distilling whiskey, you will ignore the nits I have picked here and just sit down and enjoy your read of this entertaining novel. Even if you do care, get over them and enjoy your read. You won’t regret your decision.
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