‘The Seventh Sinner’ – Jacqueline Kirby #1 by Elizabeth Peters

For vibrant, lovely Jean Suttman, the fellowship to study in Rome was the culmination of her dreams, until she undertook an innocent expedition to the ancient Temple of Mithra. From the moment she stepped into the pagan darkness and discovered the corpse of Albert, one of her fellow students, she was afraid.

Not even the comforting presence of the perceptive and practical Jacqueline Kirby could erase the fear that was nourished by one small accident after another, “accidents” that came dreadfully close to killing her. 

Someone was stalking Jean, someone ruthless and determined.long she could see no chance of rescue from the ever-present terror, no hope of escape, nothing but death.

When I previewed this novel on a #FridayReads post, someone said that the cover reminded them of the Nancy Drew novels and someone else replied that they’d read the book and it felt like ‘Nancy Drew for grown ups’. I think that that’s an excellent description.

‘The Seventh Sinner’ was a light, fast read, set in an exotic location, populated with vibrant and sometimes slightly strange people tangled up in a mystery that’s shot through with references to the history of ancient Rome and the early Christian Church. The mystery is fairly clever and kept me guessing throughout but what made the book for me was the spiky pragmatism of Jaqueline Kirby, an American librarian who strikes up an acquaintance with a group of young, post-doctoral historians, a generation younger than her and mostly American, who are doing research at the institute in Rome that Jacqueline is working at for the summer.

Although this is the first book in a four-book series featuring Jacqueline Kirby, the story is not told from her point of view. This storytelling style reminded me of the first Miss Marple book ‘The Murder At The Vicarage’ where we learnt about Miss Marple through the eyes of others without ever getting in her head. The impact of this in ‘The Seventh Sinner’ is that Jacqueline Kirby retains a mystique that makes her interesting and unpredictable. Having the story told by someone who is sometimes a little slow to understand what’s happening around her but who is close enough to witness Jacqueline’s calmness in the face of danger and her habit of changing how she presents herself to the world e.g. from demure, hair-in-a-bun glove-wearing proper Librarian to charismatic, flaming-haired, dress-split-to-long-legged-thigh party goer.

Jacqueline is observant, often blunt, always independent, sometimes deceitful and always unflappable. She’s hard to like, impossible to ignore and difficult to predict. She also has a very wide range of knowledge of history, art and people that she uses to track down the person behind the killings.

I thought that the feeling of being in a privileged English-speaking enclave in a foreign city where you are neither tourist nor resident was captured well.

The plot is cunning, erudite and almost plausible. There’s a large cast of characters, relatively little violence and a lot of conversation about history, archaeology and hagiography.

When the big reveal came, it was fun and caught me by surprise but didn’t feel like cheating. I felt the final chapters after we knew who killed whom and why, showed a need to tidy up every detail that felt quite old-fashioned, even for the 1970s. I’m fairly sure that those pages wouldn’t make it into a movie version.

I was a teenager when ‘The Seventh Sinner’ was published in 1972 and reading it now feels like time travel but to a time that seems stranger than I had remembered. It wasn’t just the floral flamboyance of the men’s clothes or the now-so-dated hairstyles. The social mores and attitudes towards gender and age are more different than I had remembered. This book made me aware of just how long it’s been since I was a teenager.

The audiobook version of ‘The Seventh Sinner’ wasn’t what I had expected either. Audible (who offer the book for free to members) show the release date as 2018 but Blackstone recorded it in 1997 and it’s showing its age. Grace Conlin does an OK job as a narrator but it’s not up to today’s standards where I’m used to narrators providing their characters with distinct, instantly recognisable voices.

I had fun with the book. It kept me entertained on a long car ride and left me keen to finish it off when we got home. I’ll be reading more in this series but next time I won’t be using the audiobook version.

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