The Fifth Petal, by Brunonia Barry***

thefifthpetalA teenage boy named Billy Barnes dies on Halloween night; everyone knows that he was trouble, and no one is too surprised to see him come to a bad end. But police chief John Rafferty has a job to do, and he sets out to discover who the killer is. The setting is Salem, Massachusetts, the location of the Salem Witch Trials centuries ago and now the Mecca of Wiccans and others that practice witchcraft of various types, not to mention throngs of tourists that show up every autumn.  Chief Rafferty wonders what the connection is between this murder and those of 25 years earlier, dubbed “The Goddess Murders”.

Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review. This book will be available to the public January 24, 2017.

Barry is an experienced novelist, but her work is new to me. This title can be read as a stand-alone novel, but there’s a tremendous amount of detail here. Perhaps having read The Lace Reader, an earlier novel that other reviewers tell us has some of the same characters that are present here, would make this book less complicated and easier to sort through; then again, if Barry had chosen fewer secondary threads to follow, the reader could relax more and enjoy the book anyway. More on that in a minute.

Rose Whelan is a Salem native, has shouldered the “unofficial blame” for the Goddess Murders; she maintains that a banshee took up residence in her body and left her with no choice. Rose has gone from the psych ward, to homelessness, and back again; Rafferty and his wife Towner have offered her a room indoors, but she won’t leave the tree outside their home for long at a time, lest bad things happen. She has bad memories, and they give her unquiet dreams:

“On that horrible night, after it happened, after the shrieking stopped, the world had quieted and then disappeared.  Rose had found herself staring into an eternal emptiness that stretched in every direction and went on forever.  When the keening began, Rose had believed that the sound was coming from her own lips. Then she’d seen the tree limbs and branches start to move with the breath of the sound itself, their last leaves burning in the black sky like crackling paper. Then the trees had begun to speak.  Come away now, the trees had said. Come away.”

The imagery here is amazing, as you can see; this aspect is the story’s greatest strength.

Our protagonist is Callie, who’s new in town. Rose had been her surrogate mother after her mother, one of the Goddesses, died. She had lost contact with her and is stunned to find her in such bad shape.  Brunonia does a fine job of highlighting the challenges of helping the homeless, not to mention the stereotypes that follow them. There’s a lot of Celtic lore that I also really like reading about.

The parts that disturb me are those throughout the book that reinforce the stereotype of women as being constantly in competition with one another, unable to get along and help each other.

However, the main thing that gets in the way of this being a really great read is the vast amount of detail about way too many things. At the 60 percent mark, my notes indicate that I wish the author would decide what, other than the primary plot line of the whodunit, she wants to feature. We have witches past; witches of the present; mean nuns; and way more about the healing properties of quartz bowls than I ever want to hear about. At this point in the book I am ready to throw in the towel and call it a 2 star read; I felt as if the mystery had degenerated into a New Age infomercial. I note that I can scarcely recall who’s dead, and who’s accused.  But it’s a DRC and I have an obligation, so I forge on.

And that diagram! The diagram of a five-petal flower is created, changed and discussed in such infinite, numbing detail that my eyes are half-crossed by the time we make our way to the climax. Once we’re there, though, the story becomes more cohesive and I like the way she resolves it.

Those that have read Barry’s other books and liked them will enjoy this one; likewise those that are drawn to various aspects of modern spiritual healing and Wiccan practices will also be pleased. For myself, I would enjoy her work more if she didn’t try to jam such an extensive collection of minutiae into a single novel.

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