The police procedural isn’t just for the mystery genre any more. Frequently, fantasy writers are combining mysteries with magic in order to produce hybrids that provide all the fun of both genres in a single novel. Tamara Siler Jones accomplishes this feat in her first DUBRIC BRYERLY novel, Ghosts in the Snow.
Bryerly is the head of security at Castle Faldorrah in a world that does not appear to be our own, though the milieu is vaguely medieval. He is confronted with a series of murders that are particularly grotesque, for the killer takes the kidneys from each victim and, apparently, eats them. I thought that perhaps Jones was going to give us Jack the Ripper in an earlier incarnation, but no: this killer has his own obscene way of butchering his victims, and his own purpose. Bryerly must use all of his forensic skills to figure out who could be committing these crimes, even as the pile of corpses gets deeper every day.
Bryerly’s job isn’t made any easier by the fact that the ghosts of the victims haunt him. They are different from your average ghosts, not merely drifting along as tragic figures, but acting as if they have an independent, ongoing existence. These souls hang around (instead of proceeding to whatever comes next after this life) in order to goad Bryerly into action, and he has to guard against their desire to make him jump to conclusions just a touch too quickly. Like any good contemporary police officer, Bryerly is quick to remind his staff that they must be very careful in drawing conclusions.
The reason so much care is needed is that the apparent murderer is Lord Risley Romlin, grandson of the king of one country, Faldorrah — in which the murders are taking place — and lord of another, Haenpar, where he is ultimately expected to take the reins of power when his grandfather dies. Risley is in love with Nella, a commoner he rescued when on a mission to Pyrinn, a third country that poses an unnamed threat to the other two. Risley did not bother to learn the customs of Pyrinn before undertaking his mission there, thus unwittingly putting Nella in his debt. Pyrinn has some very peculiar customs regarding debt, and Nella has only escaped being forced to end her own life by the slimmest of margins. She now works in Castle Faldorrah as a linen maid, changing beds and towels for the more privileged classes, and taking any extra work she can find to pay off her debt all the sooner. Risley has made it clear that he intends to court her once she is free of the debt, and their romance, including the problems of such a relationship between two people of different classes, is nicely portrayed.
Bryerly wonders, though, whether the romance, and Risley’s uncharacteristic choice to forego sex with everyone who will give him a tumble, might have unhinged Risley to the point where he is committing the murders. His suspicions grow when Risley responds oddly to questioning, stating that he “doesn’t remember” killing one girl, or putting another in a dye vat, or otherwise harming women, rather than denying the acts. It doesn’t help that Risley has been exposed to Wraith Rot while on his mission to Pyrinn, which could cause him to commit these horrible crimes all unknowing.
It’s fun to read about forensic techniques in a medieval setting, as this book is something like “CSI” set in the Dark Ages. Bryerly and his team notice such things as the color of a hair left at a crime scene and the shapes and depths of wounds. In a clever touch, some forensic tools are magical, and frighten those who must use them for that reason alone. The clues are competently sifted into the narrative, making it possible for anyone paying close attention to figure out the mystery, but not so obviously as to make it impossible for the reader looking only for the fantasy to read with pleasure.
Ghosts in the Snow is the first in a series, and won the Compton Crook Award in 2005. As far as I can tell from Jones’s blog, the series is continuing, even though the most recent book was published in 2006. Jones’s books are not for the faint of heart, as some gruesome crimes are described in necessary (that is, not gratuitous) detail. As a lover of mysteries and thrillers as well as fantasy, I found it enthralling. I’m looking forward to reading the other two books that have been published to date, Threads of Malice and Valley of the Soul. I’m eager to find out what Bryerly and his assistants Lars, Dien and Otlee get up to next.