Ceremony (Murders of Substance Book One)
Paul Austin Ardoin
When a graduate student is found dead at the centre of a 15th century chapel on a college campus, with a syringe close by and his body ritualistically posed, case analyst Bernadette Becker knows this will not be an easy solve. Her new partner, Dr Kep Woodhead, is becoming more irritating by the day, and with the bodies piling up, Bernadette starts to question her own capabilities…
Ceremony is a really promising beginning to a murder series with enjoyably intriguing ingredients; the involvement of a shadowy religious outfit, hallucinogens, sinister goings-on at a research facility, and the gruesomely primeval lamprey eels to add an extra layer of the macabre.
The novel opens straight into the chapel murder scene for which Mr Ardoin deftly sets up more questions than answers, all the while weaving a touch of context in respect of Bernadette Becker, the newly demoted Federal Agent. The reader is then introduced to Dr Kep Woodhead, who like Bernadette, also has his personal issues. However, due to his exceptional olfactory gift which enables him to literally sniff out the culprits, his unpredictable behaviour has been tolerated, despite the complaints of previous case partners.
At times, Woodhead is a little too frustrating but his ‘super smelling’ is incredibly interesting. The level of research and consequent detail that Mr Ardoin brings in relation to his fantastic sense is not to be under-estimated. It’s fascinating stuff that never stretches credulity and equal weight is given to the fact that this extraordinary talent is both a blessing and a curse.
Occasionally, Ceremony is overly preoccupied with laying the foundations for further cases; a few more backstory hints and/or personal details in respect of Becker and Woodhead would have been beneficial in the early stages of the novel. This is corrected as the book progresses and both characters become nicely developed and investable for future instalments. There are enough differences between them to spark conflict, but also the clear beginnings of a common bond.
The supporting cast are well-realised and, as with all good murder mysteries, each fall under suspicion at various stages as most are hiding something that may or may not be to do with the murder investigation. Controlling and sinister, Vivian Roundhouse, priest of the Agios Delphi organisation, was a particular standout and could have been utilised more.
The narrative gives the reader enough dead-ends and mini-reveals to keep the pages turning and there are a couple of side angles to provoke additional interest. The plot is neatly crafted, thoroughly believable and the pace never becomes too frantic; gripping but maintaining a steady, readable momentum.
Ceremony is an intelligently wrought, involving and accomplished thriller. Highly recommended.