Ghosts Lurk In M.G. Mason's New Novel, 'Shadows Of Cathedral Lane'

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Whether or not one believes in the existence of ghosts, we’re all haunted by them. If not literal spirits, than the memories of those dearly departed who’ve shared our lives: relatives, teachers, friends. We remember their words of wisdom, their jokes, stories they’d tell. Voices of the dead, speaking to us still.

Pop culture trades on ghostly presences in many forms, from the classic Gothic chain-rattlers of Dickens and M.R. James to the malevolent entities of The Conjuring film franchise. Over the span of three novels (Salmonweird, the Yuletide-oriented A Salmonweird Sleighing and the cinema-skewering satire Studio Salmonweird) and a short story collection (Spooky Salmonweird), British author M.G. Mason has crafted a lighthearted world centered on Salmonweir, a cozy seaside village on England’s southwestern Cornish coast that’s inexplicably become the haven for over five-hundred ghosts who’ve returned to the earthly plane for reasons unknown. The phantoms of Salmonweir are a motley sort—pirate captains and medieval monks and Celtic warrior women alike—but all share a lively workaday existence only occasionally interrupted by murder and mayhem.

Against this backdrop comes Detective Inspector (DI) Nikki Sandford, spinning off from her cameo appearance in Studio Salmonweird as the protagonist in Mason’s latest novel, Shadows of Cathedral Lane (available in ebook and paperback on Amazon May 31). Subtitled A Detective Sandford Mystery, the book shares the wit, flair, and incorporeal intrigue the Salmon-verse has become known for, all the while introducing fresh aspects to the ever-growing series mythology.

One evening, after an ill-fated date that sees her new girlfriend unceremoniously break up with her, a despondent Nikki encounters the ghost of a man named Jack slumped along the titular lane with a telltale knife protruding from his belly. Unseen by all but her, Nikki reluctantly acquiesces to Jack’s plea for help, and over the course of the novel the pair not only become unlikely friends, but join forces to figure out why he’s so suddenly among the living and who was responsible for his death eighty years earlier. What they uncover is a supernatural menace far greater than either could imagine and that might end up turning Nikki into a ghost, too.

Shadows of Cathedral Lane operates on a much more intimate scale than the core Salmonweird books. The cast is smaller, the mystery more personal, the insight into Nikki’s life deeper. As a lead, she’s brainy, brash, but above all, personable; this is a woman readers could realistically know in everyday life, that sassy sister, cousin or best friend with plenty of pluck and a taste for sticky toffee pudding. The fact that Nikki is so well-rounded makes audience sympathy easy once her relationship abruptly falters, and Mason’s skill at conveying her heartache is such that it will strike a resonant chord within anyone who’s suffered a similar loss. The breakup also serves as a catalyst for another of the storyline’s major threads, namely Nikki’s search for sexual identity. As the narrative unfolds, Nikki realizes (with aid from her inquisitive roommate, Rob) that she’s demisexual (a form of asexuality in which an individual feels sexually attracted to only one person after developing a close emotional bond with them), and the author (a demisexual himself) turns what could’ve been a heavy-handed treatment into an informative and affirming conversation, explaining the oft-misunderstood asexual/demisexual orientation in all its nuanced grayness with attendant tenderness, care and clarity.

Unlike some spin-offs that demand obsessive familiarity with the minutia of an entire series, no prior knowledge of Salmonweird canon is necessary to enjoy Shadows of Cathedral Lane. Typical for Mason’s work, there’s a hardy dose of humor; the dialogue in particular is airy, clever, and jovial, and many of the scenes involving Jack and his man-out-of-time astonishment at the modern world (and Nikki’s use of slang) provide many of the novel’s funniest moments. As the male lead, Jack’s World War II-era sensibilities are often at odds with the twenty-first century, but where a lesser writer could’ve turned such a character into a boorish curmudgeon (or a Steve Rogers-esque cliché), Mason instead evolves him, and Jack’s curiosity about what is, for him, the future, is delightfully refreshing. But for all its blithesome banter, the novel’s climax in a frightful parallel dimension is its showstopping centerpiece, as gripping as it is terrifying, and the threat to Nikki’s safety becomes intensely real. The subsequent spiritual struggle leads to a resolution virtually guaranteeing that another Sandford Mystery is inevitable.

Filled with laughs, scares, and heart to spare, Shadows of Cathedral Lane earns an impressive 4 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. I can’t wait to see what adventures Nikki and Jack embark upon from here.

4.0 / 5.0