by Kathleen Costa
This week we have a review of the latest Mary Wandwalker mystery by Susan Rowland along with a Behind the Book interview with Susan. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
The Alchemy Fire Murder: A Mary Wandwalker Mystery By Susan Rowland
Review by Kathleen Costa
It’s Oxford, 1399. Two visitors arrive traveling as poor women not as emissaries of the reclusive Mother Julian or nuns of the new Convent of the Holy Well. Sisters Lilies, a copyist, and Mary Jacob, a stargazer and herbalist, bring with them a divine Alchemy Scroll, a gift from Mother Julian. The scroll is to permanently reside in the newly built hall and protect those who resides there. Of course, the true meaning of the structure and its alignment to the spring equinox, the restorative power of the scroll, and it’s connection to a twin building to be built nearby is guarded, and the generations to follow will hold it safe, unfurling Mother Julian’s Alchemy Scroll only “When the time comes …”
Six centuries pass.
Dame Eleanor’s plea, “A crisis … needing the utmost discretion. St. Julian’s needs you, Miss Wandwalker,” has Mary on a train to Oxford. Her Depth Enquiry Agency, touting discretion as a priority, hopes to secure their first real job, but, unfortunately, it is with her old College, one she’s avoided for nearly forty years. Mary started her business after being unexpectedly terminated from managing the London Archive, and being responsible for her two co-workers, a family of sorts, she finds it counterproductive to turn down any business. So, she’s taking the meeting at St. Julian’s College, but she’s feeling somewhat pressured and “incalculable loss … threatens our very existence” seems rather dramatic.
Alchemy is much more complex than the scheme of changing lead to gold. Mother Julian’s Alchemy Scroll held such ancient tinctures, herbal combinations, and ingredients that, after centuries, have absorbed into the vellum. The major financial backer that keeps St. Julian’s College solvent believes the scroll holds the key to a major pharmaceutical. But, the crisis? It’s fake! Without the original, St. Julian will go bankrupt. But, the theft of the original scroll is not a crime in contemporary terms; it took place in 1658! They know by whom and are confident they know where the scroll is currently located, so Mary is hired, and reluctantly accepts, to negotiate, with absolute discretion, the return of the original scroll.
Caroline Jones and Anna Vronsky bring their own issues, insights, and determination to the agency, and are already engaged in a missing persons case that surprisingly has a connection to Mary’s enquiry about the Alchemy Scroll. Holywell Retreat Center is closely associated with St. Julian’s College, and Janet Swinford, one of its counselors, is missing. She, as well as her colleagues at the Center, is a witch, the Wiccan kind, and the Key Keeper, an integral figure in the exploration of the original scroll which is of the utmost priority to two researchers: Godric St. John and his assistant Ravi Patel. So, although the cases appear connected, Mary is off to L.A. to negotiate with museum officials while her partners stay in Oxford exploring the rumors of The Old Hospital, dubbed the “earthly seat of Hell.”
The Alchemy Fire Murder Earns 5+/5 Ancient Scrolls … Absorbing Epic!
Alche-marvelous! Susan Rowland’s second book puts an ancient scroll at the center of a centuries old theft, present day recovery efforts, and a missing witch, but loyalties are tested with blackmail, threats, betrayal, and murder. The idea behind an ancient scroll holding secrets to medicinal miracles, the women who protect it, their Wiccan beliefs and practices, and the degree to which some will go to to control its powers created an intense, absorbing epic. From Oxford to Los Angeles, from climate amok to hospital horrors, from misunderstandings to outright lies, the women are met by several people whose hidden agendas and connections impede their search and put them in danger, and, even among themselves, communication and motivation may be in conflict. The journey, a murder, and untold dangers all make for an exciting drama, and including such details about alchemy scrolls, ancient medicinal uses, religious orders that see the feminine of the divine, and secret societies was a fascinating element. This is a “couldn’t put down” experience and a big candidate for my Best of 2023!
Rowland’s writing style, descriptive and informative, uses a third person narrative allowing the three main characters to each take the lead in the drama. She focuses on an eclectic, multi-generational group of characters from academics to experts, from Wiccan practitioners to abused young adults, from those challenged by their past to those navigating a more positive present. Mary is the central force, yet struggles with juggling her business needs with an inexperienced crew. Caroline takes on more challenges building her emotional strength, but lapses effect their plans. Anna struggles with the results of having been a trafficked youth, but she’s also confronted by the realities of being part of a family dynamic. The Holywell witches have a fascinating history and their altruism is commendable, but this can work against them. All of the characters have their own foibles and failures, but it’s the strengths they find and their collaboration that makes for an intriguing cast. I am eager for the next installment.
Mary Wandwalker Mystery
The Sacred Well Murders (2022) Amazon Link HERE. KRL Review HERE.
The Alchemy Fire Murder (2023)
Author Insights! Recently Susan also did a guest post on Kings River Life, The Mystery in the Mysteries or Who Killed … the Climate?. She offers insights into her Mary Wandwalker Mystery series, as well as some truths about her newest adventure. Don’t miss!
Be a Big Susan Rowland fan!
Susan Rowland, PhD, uses her academic background to write several books exploring “the psychology of the creative imagination, using Jung to excavate a lost feminine,” and because she’s always been interested in detective fiction, she was inspired to write the Mary Wandwalker Mysteries.
Website—Susan Rowland Books
Behind the Book interview with Susan Rowland:
KRL: Where did the idea for this book come from?
Susan: I discovered a history of John Winthrop Jr., a colonial governor of Connecticut in the seventeenth century who just happened to be a practicing alchemist. This ties in with my work on alchemy, which can also be seen as a kind of psychology. When I found that The Huntingdon Library in Pasadena has a rare alchemy scroll, I was all set for a mystery about a stolen manuscript with medical secrets. The story connects my alma mater, Oxford UK, with my life now in SoCal (ending in the 2017) wildfires.
KRL: What sort of research did you have to do?
Susan: I visited Museums in London to look at alchemy manuscripts and also the Ashmolean in Oxford, founded by alchemist Elias Ashmole. He knew the historical Winthrop, so I made him friends with my Francis Andrew Ransome, governor and alchemist. I also researched for Africans visiting America before slavery. I wanted an African alchemist too. Of course, the story takes place in the twentyfirst century, so I drew on my personal experience of Oxford and of California.
KRL: While I am sure one of your goals for this book was to entertain, was there also a message you wanted to present?
Susan: I wanted to show that English colonialism, although it led to terrible genocide, also contained the tiny possibility of a meeting of spiritualities. The alchemy of John Winthrop Jnr. resembled the worldview of the Native Americans who were exploited and betrayed. Capitalism won. I also wanted to put a powerful African woman in the history of alchemy. I wanted to give her a life outside bondage in colonial America.
KRL: Why did you choose to write a supernatural mystery?
Susan: Strictly speaking The Alchemy Fire Murder is not supernatural. Like my previous mystery, The Sacred Well Murders, it plays with the borders of realism and uses Jungian psychology to do so. The Alchemy Fire Murder gradually assumes the worldview of alchemy, which was that the universe is interconnected (much as quantum mechanics speculates today). However, the murder mystery action sticks to a recognizable here and now.
KRL: Tell us about your main character and what was your inspiration for her?
Susan: Mary Wandwalker is a little older than I, and far braver, with better intuition. She is trying to make up for lost time because she hid herself away in a government archive for most of her working life. Wandwalker maintains a fiery relationship with her former boss, who sends cases to her new Depth Enquiry detective agency. She somewhat cackhandedly attempts to solve them with her dead son’s widow, Caroline, and his girlfriend, later Caroline’s lover, Anna.
These three detectives are modern versions of the triple goddess (crone, matron, maiden) whom I am casting as marginalized woman who become heroic, if not expert.
In the stories, Mary’s unusual surname is said to derive from Anglo-Saxon “wind talker” meaning old women who talked to the gods. This is my protagonist.
KRL: I know this is the second book in the series, do you have a plan for how long you would like the series to continue and ideas for future books already?
Susan: I have two more manuscripts in process. One is Murder on Family Grounds, about the death of Mary’s son and how the three of them get together. The other is a 4th story, Murder by Aery Spirits. Yes, there is a theme, and the mysteries revolve around the medieval elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire. However, I do plan to go on and write more after these first four.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Susan: In a previous life I wrote two scholarly books about mystery novels by women. My own fiction tries to put an ‘edge’ to the cozy genre. I aim for positive endings that offer hope and comfort while also dealing with real issues of trauma. Hence, I am using the mystery to process some of the fears around the climate emergency and real problems such as racism. In The Alchemy Fire Murder, I have the well-meaning Mary Wandwalker discover her white privilege, for example.
Thank you very much for interviewing me! Susan
KRL: Thank you for joining us!
To enter to win a copy of The Alchemy Fire Murder, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “alchemy,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 4, 2023. U.S. residents only, and you must be 18 or older to enter. If entering via email please include your mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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This sounds like an exciting mystery, I can’t wait to read it!
Sounds like a great read. Looking forward to reading the book.
I’ve not heard of this author or series before but it sure sounds like a great adventure.
New author for me, sounds good! tWarner419@aol.com
We have a winner!