Severn House| 1 March 2022| 256 pages| e-book| Review copy| 3*
The Chapel in the Woods is the 11th Jack Haldean Murder Mystery, set in the 1920s.
Major Jack Haldean, a former World War I pilot, is a detective story writer. He and his wife Betty are visiting his cousin Isabelle and her husband Arthur in the hamlet of Croxton Abbas in Sussex. The neighbouring estate, Birchen Bower, had recently been bought by Canadian Tom Jago and his wife Rosalind. A fortnight earlier he had sent Derek Martin and his wife, Jean, in advance to open up the house and unpack their belongings, but when the Jagos arrive they discover the house open and that most of their things including Rosalind’s diamonds had been stolen. And the Martins have disappeared. But Jago can’t believe that Martin is the thief, maintaining he is perfectly honest. Jack has formerly helped his friend Detective Superintendent Ashley of the Sussex Police with a number of cases and as he is staying locally he gets involved in the police investigations.
Jago is renovating the 17th century house, built around 1620, by William Cayden, set in woodland. The chapel in the woods contains the tomb of Anna, Cayden’s wife who was a native of Peru. Her tomb, a box tomb, is decorated with an elaborately carved leaping jaguar – hence the legend of the Jaguar Princess who haunts the chapel and grounds taking the form of a jaguar.
It gets more and more complicated. In the Victorian period Josiah Cayden, an explorer and big game hunter had imported wild animals from South America, wanting to recreate a piece of the Amazon in the grounds. And now the locals are convinced that there is something in the woods that shouldn’t be there. There have been stories about dead and mutilated animals being found around Birchen Bower woods, and every so often dogs and ponies go missing. So, when Jago hosts the village fete, the local residents throng to the estate, some keen to follow the path into the woods to visit the chapel, only to find a dead body, apparently mauled by a jaguar.
And then there is another body … Is there really a jaguar roaming the woods, or is something supernatural going on? And who stole the diamonds, was it Derek Martin or someone else? Where is Derek Martin? What is the truth about the legend of the Jaguar Princess?
It is entertaining, with a mysterious, even supernatural atmosphere in parts, but it all seems to me too unlikely and fanciful and too convoluted. I liked the setting, the scenes in the woodlands and the historical aspects. But, there is too much repetition of the events and too much discussion about the various possibilities. I lost interest and just wanted to know how the mystery was resolved. It all gets sorted out and ends as Jack explains how he uncovered what had really happened.
My thanks to Severn House for a review copy via NetGalley.