The bracing weather imbues the physical landscape of the Inishowen Peninsula with an “eerie, otherwordly quality”.
That’s what Andrea Carter’s narrator tells us at the start of Death At Whitewater Church.
But really, it’s the mental landscape of the reader that Carter endeavours to paints.
And, as we sink into her writing, Carter applies generous layers of colours and textures and brush strokes to the canvas.
Whitewater Church teeters on the edge of the cliffs of Donegal, assailed by the hostile “inky blue” waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
The grim granite chapel has been crumbling for years, after its community was scattered following a tragedy.
“The building had a heartbroken look about it,” Carter’s narrator Ben O’Keeffe tells us, “as if grieving for the parishoners who had abandoned it, the people who would have come to worship every week.”
A small-town solicitor, fleeing her own personal demons in Dublin, Ben makes a chance discovery of a crypt as she assists in a survey for a potential sale of the deconsecrated church.
Inside the damp chamber is a skeleton. Not just any old skeleton, but one wrapped in a blanket with a pillow placed under its head.
Carter introduces her narrator thus: “I’m Ben O’Keeffe. Benedicta actually, thanks to my parents’ fondness for an obscure fifth-century Italian saint, but the full version rarely gets an outing. ‘Ben’ does me just fine, although it does create some interesting misunderstandings.”
At first, this jarred with me, addressing the reader like this. But, it set the tone in what is purely a first person narrative.
Ben is a chatty, friendly pleasant person, the type you could sit down with and feel comfortable talking to. We are, of course, fed little breadcrumbs that there are secrets in her past and that she has come to Donegal to forget. We are quickly on her side.
Amidst an array of supporting characters is a main secondary character: Sergeant Tom Molloy, a slightly gruff, but decent garda, with whom Ben has a kinship.
“I like to think that he regards me as an ally, a friend even. But there are times when it isn’t so clear cut. He is a guard and I am a solicitor, after all. I guess there are limits – it just feels sometimes as if it is always Molloy who remembers them.”
They shared a “moment” a few months ago, one that has added a bit of spice to things.
Throughout the novel, the standout trait of the author for me is the quality of her writing. More often than not, it involves the weather in some way.
“The only heat in the room was coming from an old gas Superser heater fizzing bad-temperedly and ineffectively in the corner, impotent against the hall’s high ceilings and old wooden floors.”
There are scenes of her swimming in biting, icy waters, and of her relationship with her cat and the like – all of which deepen our liking of Ben and Carter’s writing.
You can feel the care, and, no doubt, hardwork, Carter must have put into her writing.
“The winter sunshine did nothing to reduce the strange sense of melancholy that comes with walking alone in an old graveyard, but still it was oddly beautiful. The only sound came from a family of rooks calling to each other high up in the laden yew trees, and the creaking of the snow beneath my feet.”
Again and again, the reader is rewarded with treats like this. It all creates a vivid sense of place, which really is the third character in the story.
“The waitress arrived at our table with a tray laden with steaming bowls of soup and doorstep sandwiches. She returned within minutes with an enormous pot of tea. As I poured, the room darkened and a sudden shower of hailstones clattered violently against the window.”
Carter also does natural, chatty dialogue very well.
As a solicitor in the fictional town of Glendara, Ben meets a range of relevant characters in her work, providing her with snippets and leads as to the mystery of the body in the crypt and who put in there.
The plot thickens and twists and people are not as they seem and pasts are revealed – all providing ammunition to Carter to develop Ben’s backstory, her detective skills and her relationship with Molloy.
In a deadly two-liner description of Molloy’s character, Ben muses: “Molloy was like a set of tangled Christmas tree lights. The harder you tried to find a way in, the more inaccessible he became.”
And it another one: “I opened the door to let him out, realising as I did so that I really didn’t want him to go.”
There is a bit of work for the reader in navigating, remembering and prioritising the range of characters we are presented with, and this reviewer did struggle at times.
But the reader invests in Ben and wants to see what happens to her as she unravels the mystery.
Author, Andrea Carter
A standout chapter for me, nestled about two-thirds in, is Ben’s long deferred visit home. Only eight or so pages in length, the chapter packs a heavy emotional punch.
Now, Irish fiction has enough dysfunctional family drama to beat the proverbial drum, but Carter’s chapter still reasonates, clear and pure.
“I took off my coat and scarf and looked around me. It was the same old kitchen cabinets, the same electric cooker with the ring on the left-hand side at the back that I had no memory of ever working, the same dim lighting. But the room didn’t have the warmth it used to have.”
Ben tells us the evening continued “as if nothing was wrong, as if the years hadn’t passed, as if I had been there the previous weekend”.
But, as wounds that have never healed ooze, the pain and stunted communication quietly scream.
“I couldn’t bear it. The same conversation. Either I told them the whole story, of I left. But I honestly didn’t think they could take the full truth. I’d be doing it for me, not them. A clearing of conscience. I stood up and went over to the bread bin on the pretence of making fresh toast I didn’t want. I stared at the old tiles on the wall above the sink. But the pretence was unbearable too. I switched on the radio and the sound of Martha and the Vandellas filled the room.”
For those of you who like your mysteries with an assured literary touch, this is a rewarding read.
Death At Whitewater Church by Andrea Carter is published by Constable.
- Disclaimer: I know the author, but I still think this is a good novel. Honestly!