Diana’s Altar: A Joe Sandilands Investigation

Written by Barbara Cleverly
Review by Jeanne Greene

If you haven’t encountered Joe Sandilands before (Enter Pale Death, 2015), he is a smart and experienced investigator who came up through the ranks from British military intelligence to a command position in Scotland Yard while still a young man. In 1933, as Assistant Commissioner, he has oversight of the London Metropolitan Police and “others” too secret to name. Joe respects the law and, unusual for his day and age, he treats men and women of any standing with respect.

Diana’s Altar opens with two troubling deaths. A friend of Joe’s commits suicide but, given the presence of a reliable witness, Joe leaves to investigate a murder in the home of a wealthy art collector. Suspicious of circumstances on the man’s estate, Joe initiates an investigation that leads to Cambridge University, home to high stakes scientific research, a natural target for Russian spies. Espionage comes under the purview of British Intelligence, however, who warn Joe off. Unintimidated by his “betters,” Joe asks questions they have, seemingly, overlooked and by following a trail they have apparently missed, he shuts down a questionable operation, solves several murders—and finds a shocking explanation for the death of his friend. His love life is less successful—Joe has yet to find the right woman—but there is someone new in his life.

The author’s rolling prose and vintage vocabulary are not for everyone, but the fast-paced plot has a compelling rhythm. Like all of Cleverly’s novels—she also writes the Laetitia Talbot Mysteries—there are well-developed characters, an authentic setting, and a few classical allusions; but it is Joe Sandilands’ likeability that brings readers back. Recommended for anyone who loves historical mysteries.