DS Jane Tennison and her partner, DC Simon Boon, are called to a building site to examine a coffin. Inside is the body of a young nun, and the investigation soon reveals that the building site used to be a convent and a school, where abuse happened and wrongdoings were covered up.
I’m a huge fan of mysteries that involve nuns, and Unholy Murder intrigued me with its behind-the-scenes look at convent life and Church politics. The first half of the book was a bit of a slog — it was slow-moving, and I almost DNF’d because I got bored — but fortunately, the story picked up in the second half. I like Jane and Boon’s partnership, and I like how their investigation digs into politics within the Catholic Church, and how this affects politics in municipalities and the police force as well.
I especially love how this mystery delves into the broader conversations around the Church’s history of abuse and cover-ups. The former convent has a troubling history, and the investigation leads Jane and Boon to former students and former nuns who have their own memories and experiences of trauma at the hands of those in leadership. That being said, I also like how the priests and nuns were presented, if not necessarily sympathetically, at least as humans, with all the flaws that implies. I have little sympathy for the Mother Superior who took out her anger on the students, but I appreciate how her descent to cruelty was explained somewhat with the external pressures she faced in her career.
Jane’s boss, DCS Barnes, also has his own history with the Church, which has led to him renouncing the faith. This colours his approach to the investigation and some of the suspects, and ultimately in consequences to his career. I thought this added a nicely personal touch to the mystery, and I like how he finds a way to share his truth at the end.
I learned midway through the book that this series is actually a prequel to the BBC Show Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as an older Jane Tennison. I remember enjoying that series, and finding Mirren’s character iconic — “Don’t call me ma’am. I’m not the bloody Queen.” So this younger verison of Jane was a bit of a disappointment. She’s fine, but nowhere near as iconic as she grows up to be. On the flip side, I developed a soft spot for Boon, and the scene where he uses Handel’s Messiah to tease out clues from someone with dementia was just beautifully done.
There were a couple of romantic subplots — between Jane and Nick, and Boon and Becky — which were honestly pretty meh. It was clear the characters were attracted to each other, but I didn’t really feel much of the chemistry. And Nick in particular turned out to be quite a man child; his immaturity in the latter half of the book was such a turnoff. The young and handsome priest, Father Chris, seemed more appealing as a love interest, but even acknowledging the barrier of his vows, that hint of a relationship barely fizzed. And as a Catholic, I found his breaking of the seal of confession a terrible breach of trust — granted, the person who confessed is dead, and the confession does end up tying some important loose ends, but still, the fact that he did that at all rubbed me the wrong way.
Overall, a bit too much of a slow burn for me, and the characters didn’t really grab me enough to make me want to read more in the series. But it did rekindle my interest in the BBC show, and I may check it out again.
Thank you to the publisher for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.