Maeve Binchy's new book was written by seven authors - will readers be able to spot the late writer's chapter?
Imagine, if you can, a murder mystery in which a priceless Caravaggio painting is stolen in the wee hours of the night from a small, rural Kildare convent, thereby endangering the fiscal future of the abbey and the cloistered livelihood of the five nuns therein?
Imagine also that the two youngest sisters promptly set aside their vows of perpetual silence, and donning civvies, undertake to solve both the theft and the series of brutal murders that follow in its wake.
Not to worry, though, if you can't even begin to imagine such carry-on as that very task has already been successfully discharged by novelist Peter Cunningham and a strong supporting cast of six fellow authors, each of whom has written one of the chapters which make up Sister Caravaggio, a decidedly entertaining crime caper. What's more, featuring among the seven co-scribes is the sadly missed, bestselling Irish writer Maeve Binchey, whose final unpublished fiction has now hit the bookshops, verily out of the blue, two years after her death in 2012.
As it happens, Maeve, whose bestselling romantic fiction made her a global household name, was also a keen reader of thrillers by Ian Rankin and Ed McBain among others. And so it's not surprising she happily accepted her friend Cunningham's invitation to try her own dab writerly hand at the genre. Joining them both here are writers Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (who, like Maeve, also contributed to the collaborative Finbar's Hotel books crafted by Irish writer Dermot Bolger), along with crime writer Cormac Millar, novelist Mary O'Donnell and award-winning playwrights Neil Donnelly and Peter Sheridan.
It's tempting to assume that Cunningham, who both devised and edited the novel, also wrote the first chapter, as part of the pleasure of this whodunnit is trying to figure out "who dun" which chapter, so to speak, as well as trying to suss out which character (or characters?) are responsible for the mounting body count. The opening segment tidily sets out the novel's stall, painting a picture of both the abbey and its stolen masterpiece, The Agony of Judas Iscariot which, given Caravaggio's carousing and violent biography, fits the bill more neatly than, say, a Van Dyck portrait of St Anthony.
We also hear tell of many (but not all) of the characters straight away, most of whom in true Agatha Christie-style measure up as likely (or unlikely) suspects. Among the motley line-up are a dipsomaniac provincial newspaper reporter, a Jesuit car mechanic and a Catholic convert English accountant, along with an aggressive local farmer with a covetous eye on the abbey lands, and - God forbid! - a pair of broad-shouldered nuns with decidedly large hands.
The plotting over the next eight days is fast, furious, and frequently comic - a plethora of unexpected knocks on the door, high-speed car chases, ominous telephone calls plus the odd red herring as the action shunts from Kildare to Dublin to the Dingle peninsula. Each author also puts it up to the next with at least one additional corpse plus a chapter-ending twist to the tale, not unlike a relay team handing the baton on to the following sprinter.
What somehow keeps it all afloat are the marvellous Alice and Maggie, as the two nuns proceed to call one another once outside the convent, where they also rediscover a taste for short skirts, yellow V-necked blouses and shiraz and brandy. Confident "that God is on our side", the two contemplatives put both lives and (as we are informed) shapely limbs at risk, and so decidedly outstrip the gardaí in bringing the heinous villain down.
Equally well-executed is a seamless narrative voice that underpins the novel, making an allotment of its seven-ways authorship, for this reader at least, a nigh impossible task. Nor, I'll confess, did I manage to twig the identity of the novel's serial killer. That said, I could possibly make a stab at which chapter just might be Maeve's contribution, but won't offer any such hostage to fortune here, never mind dampen readers' pleasure in taking their own shot at it.
If the final, frenetic showdown with the unmasked psychopathic perp is somewhat over-egged, the short epilogue that follows, with its wonderfully unexpected denouement vis-à-vis its two charming sisterhood sleuths, more than makes up for that.
It also plants a mysterious seed for a possible sequel, albeit without the outsized talents of Ms Maeve. But one dastardly tale at a time, surely, and hats off here to a nifty summer's read with which to help kill (poison or garrotte) the encroaching long winter nights.
Sister Caravaggio, Maeve Binchy, Peter Cunningham, Neil Donnelly, Cormac Millar, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Mary O'Donnell, Peter Sheridan; Liberties Press, tpbk, 214 pages, €12.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350