Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 17 August 2021)
Series: Jane Tennison – Book Seven
Length: 389 pages
My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
The reigning queen of British crime fiction, Lynda La Plante, returns with another clever and intriguing murder mystery, with her latest entry in the Jane Tennison series, Unholy Murder.
La Plante is a great author whose books I have featured several times over the last few years. Best known for her work in British television, where she produced and wrote several shows and television movies, La Plante has really started to focus more on her novels recently, producing some awesome and compelling reads. Out of all her recent works, the one I have been enjoying the most is the outstanding Jane Tennison series. Serving as a prequel to the acclaimed Prime Suspect television series, the Jane Tennison novels follow a younger version of the show’s protagonist, the titular Jane Tennison, as she works her way up the ranks of the Metropolitan Police. This series has so far contained several awesome and impressive novels, including Good Friday, Murder Mile, The Dirty Dozen and Blunt Force. The latest entry in the series, Unholy Murder, contained another amazing mystery that sets the protagonist against the dangerous influence of the Catholic Church.
In 1982, Detective Sergeant Jane Tennison has recently been assigned to the Bromley CID, a quieter London beat where she can focus on her upcoming inspector’s exam. However, her knack for attracting the most unusual and deadly murders once again surfaces when construction workers uncover a coffin at the back of a new housing development. Based on the site of an old, deconsecrated convent, it is initially assumed that the coffin could be part of a forgotten graveyard, and the coffin is taken to the local morgue. However, when opened, the coffin is revealed to contain the corpse of a brutally murdered nun.
With no idea who the deceased is or when they died, Tennison is initially unsure how to proceed. With her superiors assuming that the coffin could be decades or even centuries old, there is little desire for the case to continue. However, when Tennison is able to determine that the crime took place just before the convent shut down in the 1960s, she is given permission to investigate and attempts to find who the murdered nun is and how her death was left undiscovered for so long.
Digging into the past of the convent and its attached orphanage, Tennison and her team soon discover a sordid history or abuse, neglect and cover-ups. Convinced that the murder may be related to these charges, the police attempt to find out more about the nuns who lived there. However, the Catholic Church is uncooperative and all their files on the convent are missing or destroyed. With the Pope’s historical visit to London only days away, Tennison is determined to get to the bottom of this terrible case, no matter what, Tennison follows every angle she can to get to the truth. But with someone high up in the church’s hierarchy doing everything to cover up the crime, and with her own superior’s attempting to stop the investigation, can Tennison and her team unmask the killer, or will the secrets of the past came crashing back with unfortunate collateral damage?
This was another pretty awesome novel from La Plante, who has come up with a fantastic and captivating crime fiction story. Unholy Murder has an impressive murder mystery to it, with the premise of a murdered, unknown nun secretly buried on the grounds of a former convent. La Plante sets up this entire mystery perfectly, and the reader is soon invested in the plot. There are some great aspects to the investigation, and I liked the usage of an older crime, with the protagonists forced to dive back nearly 20 years. There are multiple potential suspects, twists and a range of interferences featured throughout the course of the investigation, and I had a wonderful time following through and trying to figure out who did it and who is trying to keep it quiet for their own reasons. It all leads up to an intense and fast-paced conclusion, with a second killing seeming to occur, and several separate story threads coming together and adding in some intrigue and excitement. I was really impressed with the final solutions to the story, and I appreciated the dark and cynical ending that it contained. This was one of La Plante’s more captivating and clever mysteries and it was a lot of fun getting to the bottom of everything.
One of the more interesting aspects of the entire novel was the inclusion of the Catholic Church as a major force in the investigation. While some of the lower-level clergy and staff are initially helpful, once the case is revealed to be a murder, potentially committed by someone working at the convent, senior church members work hard to halt the investigation and try to protect themselves and the reputation of the church. This was a fascinating and intense part of the investigation, and it added in layers of complexities and difficulties that the protagonists are forced to overcome. The case becomes even more complicated, with multiple allegations of abuse or brutality from the sisters at the convent coming to light. I really appreciated the way La Plante worked this aspect into the novel, and it was fascinating to see this in a historical context as I am personally more used to hearing about these sorts of issues in the 21st century. The impacts of the church and its members on the case are pretty fascinating, especially as it makes the solution a lot more clouded, and some resolutions a lot more controversial. While some authors would use this to simply bash the church, La Plante paints a more complex and multifaceted story here, attempting to show that some of the clergy characters were really good people bound by rules, their oaths or the ambitions of others who abuse their roles and responsibilities for their own aims. I felt that they author’s use and inclusion of the Catholic Church in this novel helped to make Unholy Murder a much better novel, and it ensured that the case was a lot more intense and complex.
Jane Tennison is always an interesting character to follow, especially as she is one of the few senior female investigators in the MET during this prequel series. While this is a crime fiction series, a large amount of the plot revolves around Tennison’s personal life, and La Plante has spent a lot of time showing Tennison’s growth as a character, as well as the events that turned her into the hard-edged investigator featured in Prime Suspect. It has been really fascinating to see Tennison claw her way up the ranks over the last few books, and it was great to see her once again take a leading role in a murder investigation. Due to some of her prior experiences with fellow officers, Tennison has a bit of a chip on her shoulder in this book, although she manages to mostly prove that she has what it takes. I do wish that Tennison weren’t portrayed as someone who lets her personal life interfere with the job, especially as she once again gets involved with a person connected to the murder to her own detriment. Still, I enjoyed Tennison in this novel, and she was a great central protagonist to follow.
This novel featured an interesting group of supporting characters, including police officers, suspects, and members of the church. The author’s great use of multiple character perspectives in this novel was perfect to highlight these various side characters, and I liked how it also helped to make some of the people connected to the case seem more suspicious or guilty. While there were several characters I liked, I mostly want to focus on the various police characters featured within Unholy Murder, as they were a major part of the plot. Not only do you have several recurring police characters from the prior Jane Tennison novels but there are also some great new characters who were very fun to follow. I quite liked rookie investigator DC Boon, a young officer that Tennison has taken under her wing. While he initially appears a bit clumsy and clueless, he really starts to grow as a character as the novel progressed, becoming a much more competent investigator. He also becomes a lot more serious, especially once he gets personally involved in the case, and there are some deep and emotional moments that occur around him as the novel progresses.
I also deeply appreciated the inclusion of DCS Barnes, Tennison’s new boss who heads up the investigation. Barnes has previously dealt with cases of child abuse by members of the church whose crimes were covered up by his superiors and the church, and this memory drives him throughout the novel and ensures that he takes the cases extremely seriously. Once it becomes apparent that the murder was likely committed by a member of the clergy, and that the priest he previously attempted to bring down is now a senior figure leading the latest cover-up, he becomes a bit obsessive and refuses to accept any alternate possibilities and suspects. It was really quite intriguing to see an anti-Church police officer in the 1980s, and I really liked the complex and compelling portrayal around him. All these side characters add a lot to the overall story, and La Plante did an excellent job of fitting these intense personal stories into the wider murder mystery.
Unholy Murder is an excellent new novel that continues the excellent Jane Tennison series by the amazing Lynda La Plante. Featuring a clever mystery, some great characters and a really intriguing plot hook, Unholy Murder easily grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they become deeply attached to the outcome of the story. I had an outstanding time reading this latest book and I look forward to the next instalment of this fun series in 2022.