Unholy Murder

by Lynda La Plante

Publisher/Year: Allen & Unwin/2021

Publisher description

A coffin is dug up by builders in the grounds of an historic convent – inside is the body of a young nun.

In a city as old as London, the discovery is hardly surprising. But when scratch marks are found on the inside of the coffin lid, Detective Jane Tennison believes she has unearthed a mystery far darker than any she’s investigated before.

However, not everyone agrees. Tennison’s superiors dismiss it as an historic cold case, and the Church seems desperate to conceal the facts from the investigation. It’s clear that someone is hiding the truth, and perhaps even the killer. Tennison must pray she can find both – before they are buried forever . . .

In Unholy Murder, Tennison must lift the lid on the most chilling murder case of her career to date.

Reviewer: Jacquie Byron

Utter the name Lynda La Plante to a budding crime writer and you may well see their eyes glaze over and their attention wander as visions of crowded bookstores, opening red night carpets, shelves full of awards and stacks of nice, crisp cash overwhelm them. The woman has been a juggernaut on the crime scene, both in book formats and on the screen, for decades and deserves kudos, respect and even envy if you’re that way inclined (which I am).

La Plante’s famous television series, ‘Prime Suspect’, starring Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison, emerged 30 years ago. In more recent times she has resurrected the character in a series of novels charting Jane’s early career in the Metropolitan Police. I confess Unholy Murder is the first I have read in the series so it took a bit of catching up to realise we’re embedded in the very early 80s, which explained why people were smoking ciggies and drinking whisky in the office (good old days?) and Jane was referring to a romantic interest as a possible “Mr Right” (not so good).

There is no way this lowly reviewer would out-and-out ctiticise a doyen like Lynda La Plante. Who the hell am I besides a big fan? Her television writing is gripping and entertaining, her commitment to placing strong women at the centre of the action – and of their own lives – has, I believe, been important culturally and socially.  From a career perspective La Plante has also been a groundbreaker, forming her own television production company and executive producing a litany of projects, incuding original scripts and adaptations of her books.

So what I will say is, this book is set 30 years ago and it feels like it, but not in a good way. I suspect Unholy Murder is the kind of book people are thinking of when they bore me with the blanket statement that they don’t like/don’t read crime. I kind of felt like La Plante was sitting down in front of me and, in a very straightforward way, just telling me about this thing that happened. It’s very competent, there is solid world building and a plethora of reminders of what people liked to eat, drink or do with interior design in the 80s but I did not get a great deal more out of it. I suspect the author’s screenwriting background is at play here, helping the reader “see” a lot of the action, not getting bogged down in interior monologues or thoughts, basically keeping things kind of simple.

I admit the story does hint at the tide turning against the Catholic Church and its habit (pun intended) of moving dangerous priests and nuns along to new parishes rather than outing them as pathological abusers. But this is dealt with in a fairly pragmatic, brief way.

Unholy Murder a solid, easy-to-read tale that, for seasoned crime readers, won’t throw up enough surprises. It’s kind of fun guessing who dunnit it and why. You can follow the clues and red herrings. However, it lacks is the deep dive into political and social issues we find in the best crime fiction today. And the writing is plain and clear, meaning you won’t be underlining captivating sentences. Also, Jane seems to eat nothing but sausage sandwiches and still looks good in the sexy red bathing suit her new boyfriend (also part of the case she is investigating) just happens to have on hand for her to borrow. The mystery in my mind became why the hell does he have this suit and why the hell does she so glibly slip it on?