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The Orpheus Trail, By Maureen Duffy

Underworld pickle of red herrings

One of the best and most chilling ghost stories by MR James is entitled "Lost Hearts". It tells how an aged scholar and collector of Roman antiquities murders and consumes the hearts of children to enable him to achieve immortality. Maureen Duffy's new novel sometimes reads like an updated version, replete not only with pagan ritual, but internet pornography, blackmail and child trafficking.

Placed on the bleak Essex coast, the action begins with the discovery of the tomb of a Saxon prince. The grave goods are a fabulous haul; puzzling in the case of a medallion bearing symbols of Mithras, Ormuz, Orpheus and Christ, and a Greek inscription on beaten gold sheet, giving instructions on how the prince might arrive at the Islands of the Blest rather than Hades. Alex Kish, curator of a local museum, is called in to advise. He arranges an exhibition, but the night before it opens, the medallion and the inscription are stolen. Soon after the body of a boy is found with a piece of the gold sheet.

Kish is questioned by Detective Chief Inspector Hildreth. The two strike up an unlikely alliance. Do real-life detectives confide in outsiders quite so much, and phone to ask opinions or report an investigation's progress? The murders go on; always of boys, and set up as macabre symbolic tableaux, and the race is on to prevent the last, Mithraic death.

Kish, the narrator, is a fortysomething widower living alone with his cat, Caesar. His life in Southend, his affair with fellow-curator Hilary Caistor and friendship with Jack Linden, an archaeologist who comes to a sticky end, are all finely realised. Where the book comes unstuck is in not deciding whether it is a novel of character and atmosphere, or a logical detective story. The two genres rarely come off together and this is no exception. There are too many red herrings and the mysterious organisers of child trafficking, blackmail and murder never show themselves: a regrettable lack of threat in a thriller.