Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.
This third instalment in the Donegal-set Inspector Starrett series is curiously old-fashioned. In fact, the first few pages feature a cast of characters list, not unlike those at the beginning of a Sayers or Christie.
St Ernan’s Blues features the much-used Golden Age device of the victim belonging to a closed community that interacts in a finite space. In this instance, the community is St. Ernan’s House, an island-located residential home for former priests. There are eleven of these residents and a female housekeeper (and yes the symbolism in the twelve is signposted). The victim is one Matthew McKaye, found dead in the communal kitchen. Suspects dutifully line up both from within the residence and among the many young ladies the handsome priest frequented.
The narrative follows a standard (but not uninteresting) police procedural pathway: Starrett’s team identify and then dismiss suspects with various possible motives to expedite McKaye’s entry into the pearly gates. The motives include blackmail, love and sexual jealousy, of course. And the person (or people) who-really-dunnit is (or are) not revealed until a few pages before the end. I wasn’t surprised at the conclusion but the motive was different from what I suspected.
What makes St. Ernan’s stand out is the astute weaving in of Starrett’s personal life into the evolving murder investigation. Starrett is Morse-like in that his first name is not revealed. But he also stands out from the world-weary Rebus clones as a chatty, easy-going and self-aware copper. The type of boss we’d all wish for, he trusts his team and takes his underlings’ advice on board. This team spirit contrasts niftily with the pettiness and jealousies of the St Ernan’s lot.
Also pleasant and unexpected is the respect and appreciation Starrett grants the priests and their work. Several recent books have (rightly) condemned criminal acts against children and adults committed by men of the cloth who deemed themselves above the law. This is not one of those books and the sins and misdemeanours of these priests could well have been committed in the lay community. The bonhomie is both agreeable and believable, Fr. Fergus Mulligan is introduced early on as displaying the twinkle of the better priests. Fr Edward McKenzie, likewise, is presented as a welcoming gentleman and his smile as heart-warming.
Starrett and the Serious Crimes Unit pursue their leads but do not fully drop their personal lives. The inspector’s life is for the most part happy - his rekindled romance with teenage sweetheart Maggie Keane is blossoming and one gets no sense of the professional conflicts that so often underpin procedurals. The tragic element that crops up is that Starrett’s friend and mentor Newton Cunningham is dying and both men know this. Cunningham’s brain is still sharp and he helps his friend solve the McKaye case.
Some lovely gentle humour peppers the pages of St. Ernan’s. Charles mentions an “Irish family Robinson” and there is a droll reference to a character with more tattoos than teeth. According to the dust jacket, Charles has worked in music promotion and the mentions of one of the padres’ side in promoting local bands lends a sense of authenticity.
Starrett’s cheerfulness and optimism are unusual for a modern-day copper; neither is unwelcome or out of place. Less charming is the man’s frequent use of the term “Bejeepers!” (as in "oh my!" Or "pull the other one!"). In fact, it is so annoying that Charles included comment from Maggie’s daughter about his overuse of it. The term pops up again and again and frankly, it rankled.
Also one does pick up on segments that would’ve benefited from a tighter edit. There are just a few places where Charles tells more than he shows or uses six words where three would’ve sufficed.
This is an amiable novel with a droll appealing cast of characters. Starrett and his girlfriend are both likeable and smart, I was rooting for them to stay together. I am guessing the next Starrett novel may throw some hurdles their way and it will be worth discovering how they overcome these.