City of Gold and Shadows– The Twelfth Felse Novel


The Felse series of novels first appeared in the 60s and 70s, then there were new editions by Headline in the 80s and 90s, the latter partly prompted, no doubt, by the enormous success of the Cadfael novels which began in 1977 and ran into the 90s. The Twelfth novel in the Felse series, which emerged for the first time in 1973, is once more all about George the Inspector (with cameo appearances by Bunty), and not about Dominic or his fiancee Tossa who are off in India helping with agricultural ministries.

After this novel, which is absolutely one of the best in the series, being an archaeological thriller, not to mention being the longest in the entire series at 248 pages, there was a five year hiatus before the last novel in the Felse series which came out in 1978. One may surmise that this gap was in part caused by the cranking up of the Cadfael series of novels, and perhaps as well Peters decided that her previous series needed an appropriate conclusion, since all things Felse had been left hanging at the end of ‘City of Gold and Shadows’.

The focus of ‘City of Gold and Shadows’ is a Roman archaeological site on the border of England and Wales entitled Aurae Phiala, or ‘golden bowl’ due to its shape and beauty in the sunlight, as it rested on the bank of the river Comer, hence near the Felse home base in Comerbourne. The story line is somewhat complex. The opening gambit has to do with a relative of the famous archaeologist Alan Morris who seems to have disappeared. He had done a good deal of work on this site, written the latest dig report on it, and then apparently gone off to Turkey to Aphrodisias and Istanbul, and never returned. The relative, Charlotte Rossignol, an oboe player in a regional symphony, has been summoned by a solicitor, because he does not know what to do about Morris’ affairs, in particular his rental property, as he has not communicated in many months. Rossignol for her part, had never met her great uncle Alan, only hearing about his archaeological exploits. Her curiosity peaked, she decides to read Morris’ book about Aurae Phiala, and visit the near by site. As chance would have it, she is at the site when someone else goes missing, a school boy, whom she has met on the site. The police later find his body down stream.

The novel in fact turns on the finding and filching of Roman antiquities from this site, and their illegal sale on the black market to greedy collectors. The police and Scotland yard are called in not merely to solve a murder, but to catch a thief, or two. One of the themes that Peters fruitfully explores is the difference between solving a case, and seeing justice being done. In this novel the case is solved, indeed more than one case is solved, but whether justice would be done after the fact by the judge and jury is left hanging.

What this novel has going for it is interesting and eccentric characters, and even more exotic relationships, for instance a very young woman married to a man who could be her grandfather, a man who is a minor scholar, and caretaker of the archaeological site at Aurae Phiala who is a descendant of the Welsh tribal people that eventually kicked the Romans out of this region of Briton. Peters has done her homework and so there is lots of good discussions about cauldariums and the like, as well as Roman helmets and gold coins. What is most interesting is George Felse’ technique of getting people to talk, and so reveal clues to who has done what, when, and with whom. Unlike water boarding, or in your facing interviewing, George Felse is subtle, and simply lets people rattle on, until they trip themselves up and say something revealing. As much as anything else, its a matter of how he asks the question, and which judicious questions he chooses to ask.

I especially loved this novel, having written seven archaeological thrillers myself, the latest of which Return to Zion is coming out this month! While I was able to guess who one of the culprits was well before the end of the novel, there were various surprises I never saw coming at the end of the novel for sure. If you are going to sample this series, I recommend this one, or ‘The Knocker on Death’s Door’ to see what these murder mysteries are really like.

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