Annabelle Chase, when not teaching crime reporting in Denver, spends her summers in Malamulele, at a convent where her late aunt was a nun. The normally tranquil convent is thrown into disarray when Sister Valaria is found murdered, her head nearly severed. Annabelle’s pal, Sister Bridget, is a quick suspect; she’d had an argument with Valaria not long ago, culminating with a threat from Bridget. But Annabelle soon realizes that Bridget may have been the intended target, especially after someone tries to grab Bridget and the two friends share an unwelcome encounter with a cobra in Annabelle’s car. Annabelle investigates Valaria’s murder with handsome Detective Baloyi, and a series of ritual killings, similar to ones from a couple years prior, may have something to do with recent events. The novel establishes itself as a murder mystery right away, opening with a scream in the night. The story’s winsome amateur-sleuth protagonist is in perpetual interrogation mode; she asks Bridget, her closest chum at the convent, rather bluntly, “Did you kill Sister Valaria?” Even being kidnapped doesn’t stop Annabelle from drilling her captor(s) with questions. There are a number of genuinely unsettling moments, like a figure moving in a dark courtyard at the convent or simple accounts of the ritual murders. But the story also uses a subtle humor; e.g., Annabelle notes that nun Bridget’s not “in the habit of breaking her word.” The relationship and eventual intimacy between Annabelle and Baloyi is predictable, but the romance and ongoing murder case are well-balanced. Though it’s a treat to watch the mystery unravel and Annabelle work her way through the pieces, the revelations do rely a little too heavily on coincidence, particularly concerning character relations. This, however, doesn’t detract from Bartos’ bright depictions of South Africa’s skies.
Appealing characters and settings enhance this unnerving murder mystery.