The Language of the Dead

Written by Stephen Kelly
Review by Susan McDuffie

An old man is found slain under a tree, crows pecking at his eyes. The ritual slaying of Will Blackwood echoes the killing of a reputed witch some sixty years earlier; the killer carved a cross on the victim’s forehead, stabbed a pitchfork through his neck, and embedded a scythe in his chest. Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Lamb investigates in this murder mystery set in rural Hampshire in the early days of World War II.

Lamb’s investigations lead him to a strange mute boy, Peter, who communicates through his detailed drawings of insects and butterflies, to the girl Emily Fordham, who has befriended the boy, and to three neglected children who may have witnessed the slaying. The need to find the killer becomes increasingly urgent as another brutal murder takes place in the quiet village of Quimby. Varied subplots involve Lamb’s own daughter and her work as a civil defense officer, Lamb’s troubled Sergeant, David Wallace, and a ghost from Lamb’s own years in the trenches of WWI, Inspector Harry Rivers. The characters are well drawn, and the plot moves in unexpected directions as the investigation continues against a background of German bombings and the privations of the war.

Kelly’s strong writing weaves these diverse strands into a cohesive whole. The novel vividly evokes the era and setting. I greatly enjoyed this story and look forward to reading more of Inspector Lamb’s cases in the future. Recommended.