Emery’s latest mystery returns to Halifax setting

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By Rosalie MacEachern

For The News

Blood on a Saint (ECW Press, $24.95) is Anne Emery’s seventh in the Collins-Burke mystery series featuring a quirky, blues-playing lawyer and an intellectual, street-smart Catholic priest.

Unfortunately, it is not the best in the series. Coming after the richly readable Death at Christy Burke’s, it is a little disappointing. On a positive note the setting is back in Halifax which marks a return to the familiar landscapes and watering holes. References to Bruce MacKinnon’s cartoons are another plus.

It is Brennan Burke, with his politically charged history, his colourful personal past, his razor-sharp intellect, esoteric interests and street-fighter instincts, as well as his unique approach to Catholicism, who carries this series. Lawyer Monty Collins, always a man in transition, is a bit of a smoother for Burke’s sharp edges. Collins’ semi-estranged and sharp-tongued wife and children provide a broader domestic context for Burke and Collins, and the kindly Monsignor Michael O’Flaherty, with whom Burke shares a parish, is usually a perfect foil for the younger priest.

Collins shows signs of becoming reformed which is only interesting if you knew him in messier times and O’Flaherty comes off as a fool when he has always been more complex.

The story begins with a fired church secretary who claims to have been visited by the Blessed Virgin on the parish grounds, precisely where a statue of St. Bernadette stands. Soon after, at the same location, a young woman is murdered. The taciturn Burke is livid when miracle peddlers move into the church yard and he is ordered by the bishop to appear on a tawdry talk show to get in front of the fuss.

Emery, who is herself a Halifax lawyer, gets full marks for creating a positively vile character in television host Pike Podgis who is the initial murder suspect. His diabolically twisted attempts to torment Burke are unnerving and he is the book’s most memorable character, though not because you want to remember him. There is something contrived, though, in him being so quickly arrested as a suspect and it is too much of a stretch that he winds up as Collins’s client.  

Equally interesting and considerably more endearing is the character Ignatius, a homeless but strangely gifted man who becomes the second suspect in the murder investigation.

The female characters in Blood on a Saint are under-developed, perhaps intentionally so, and this gives the book a sort of random interaction of people and events which is perhaps consistent with everyday life or possibly even a gentle jibe at church hierarchy. Although the series is set in the 1990s, this book comes closest to addressing current issues, in this case the bullying of young people.

If you have not read any of Emery’s previous books, Blood on a Saint may not inspire you to go looking and that’s a shame because they are good reading. Burke’s character is too thin this time around. There’s little politics, inside or outside the church, no personal baggage or complications and not even a great sense of his relationship to church theology. Granted he does have a touching meeting with an idolized singer and he does break into an apartment but he is a shadow of his usual self.

It is also debatable whether Collins on the mend makes a better book.

Blood on a Saint is, hopefully, just Burke and Collins on a bad day and we can look forward to further adventures. 

Organizations: ECW Press

Geographic location: Halifax

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