Carrie Smith’s newest addition to to the Claire Codella series, Unholy City, is both a strong standalone novel as well as a reason to pick up the first two books in the series. This classic who-dunnit with a strong female protagonist is sure to please.
Told over the course of four days, Unholy City investigates the murder of Philip Graves, the senior churchwarden of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Found dead in the church’s herb garden following a vestry meeting, NYPD Detectives Claire Codella and Brian Haggerty lead the investigation. A heroine with a chip on her shoulder and a bruised ego, Codella has no shortage of viable suspects. At the top of her list is a doctor with a dark secret, an older woman with an agenda, a recently widowed wife, a lawyer with a short temper, a tattooed choir director, and a deeply unhappy pastor. When another church member is found dead, Codella and Haggerty must look inside the church walls for answers, where they uncover a string of lies that threaten the very thread of the St. Paul community.
Unlike the psychological thrillers that have reigned supreme for the last several years, Smith does not offer us a stunning twist, nor an all too convenient sociopath. Instead, she’s given us a true mystery. Unholy City is littered with clues, red herrings, and completely plausible motives—herein lies its success. A pleasant change of pace, Unholy City is a solvable, yet not-quite-predictable mystery that feels refreshing in a sea of overwrought thrillers. Readers will find themselves flipping back to previous chapters in search of cleverly planted clues and checking the suspect interviews for discrepancies.
Smith does a fine job of providing just enough grit and seediness to maintain interest. She successfully lifts the veil of church life revealing characters with vices that sit uncomfortably in a Sunday pew. And yet Unholy City never takes the sinister detour oft too familiar in recent portrayals of the church. While these portrayals are not without reason, it was a relief to read a mystery with the Church as the central setting that does not involve sexual abuse.
The mystery/thriller genre has enjoyed some real knockouts over the last few years and female authors in particular seem to be enjoying a steady rise of commercial popularity. Smith’s Claire Codella series—with its classic structure and compelling lead—strikes middle ground amongst the increasingly dark tone of psychological suspense. Concisely written and well paced, Unhold City has solidified Smith’s home on the shelves of mystery lovers. Mystery readers, not unlike detectives themselves, will enjoy solving crimes alongside the dogged Detective Codella.