Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel plays out over several days and follows the most trusted member of a small community on a mission to explain the death and find the killer of a wealthy landowner. All of which sounds conventional enough. But Harvey is an intelligent and audacious writer, able and willing to take creative risks and perform stylistic feats. “The Western Wind” is no humdrum whodunit. It is set in 1491, its narrator/investigator is a priest, and his story is teasingly told in reverse, beginning four days after the foul deed and moving backward.
The events unfold in Oakham — not a quaint English village but a rural backwater populated with “scrags and outcasts.” In the early hours of Shrove Tuesday, one such resident, Herry Carter, rouses John Reve from his slumber in his confession booth. On the fourth day of Shrovetide, the body of Tom Newman — previously missing, presumed dead — has finally turned up in a bend in the river.
This is a crucial development as Newman was “the man who provided land and work and food and worldliness to this soggy little dell.” However, when Reve and Carter arrive at the scene they find the corpse gone. Reve believes Newman “drowned by poor, shoddy fate.” His superior, a conniving dean with “a nose for the nasty,” smells murder and gives Reve a day to listen to his penitent parishioners’ confessions and discover the guilty party.
This is a beautifully written and expertly structured medieval mystery packed with intrigue, drama and shock revelations. Harvey scatters clues (a dead dog, a shirt in bulrushes, a strange gash on Carter’s head) and dangles red herrings. As Reve’s congregants take their turn outside his “little dark box,” confessing their sins and spilling their secrets, we join him in sifting their testimonies for any pertinent, incriminating details.
But Harvey’s guessing game proves to be deviously tricky. The villagers are a nervy, god-fearing, superstitious bunch, keen to conceal or quick to over-share. Some had grudges against Newman and one married woman had an intimate affair with him. Several individuals completely muddy the water by claiming to be the perpetrator. As Reve listens, the dean skulks, eavesdrops, sows suspicion and intimidates the priest with his increasingly toxic presence — “murderous in its bid to find a murderer.”
Equally problematic is Reve himself. The more his narrative unwinds, the more odd discrepancies and startling disclosures come to light. Soon the focus is not Reve’s spiritual expertise but his earthly experience. As with her 2009 debut novel “The Wilderness,” about a man with Alzheimer’s and his long day’s journey into night, Harvey plays with unreliable narration, probes memory and airs elusive or inconvenient truths.
“How unknowable men are, full of corners,” Reve informs us. We navigate the corners of Harvey’s characters, all the while marveling at the intricacy of her puzzle and the seductiveness of her prose.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Western Wind
By: Samantha Harvey.
Publisher: Grove Press, 294 pages, $26.