Reading Group Guide: The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

Article published on June 7, 2018.

“The Cornish village of St Petroc is the sort of place where people come to hide. Tom Killgannon is one such person. An ex-undercover cop, Tom is in the Witness Protection Programme hiding from some very violent people and St Petroc offers him a chance to live a safe and quiet life. 

Until he meets Lila. 

Lila is a seventeen-year-old runaway. When she breaks into Tom’s house she takes more than just his money. His wallet holds everything about his new identity. He also knows that Lila is in danger from the travellers’ commune she’s been living at. Something sinister has been going on there and Lila knows more than she realises. 

But to find her he risks not only giving away his location to the gangs he’s in hiding from, but also becoming a target for whoever is hunting Lila.” 

In this latest instalment in our series of reading group guides, Paul Burke poses some questions about The Old Religion by Martyn Waites.

(As ever, potential spoilers follow – we recommend that you don’t read the guide until you have read the book.)

Q: The Old Religion is set in a remote fictional village on the Cornish coast, St. Petroc. What does the quiet, secluded setting bring to the story? Would The Old Religion work in a big city?

Q: Forensic science and technology-based policing methods feature heavily in most modern British and American crime novels. The Old Religion is a story that doesn’t rely on either. Why is this and how refreshing do you find Waites’ approach?

Q: The Old Religion is a crime thriller, not a horror story, or is it? The novel is influenced by the horror classic The Wicker Man (1973). In what way does the novel borrow from the horror genre? What makes it a crime novel?

Q: Lila is a formidable character and an independent young woman. Yet she has a weakness for bad influences. What makes her strong? Why can’t she break free? What stops Lila from running when she escapes early in the novel?

Q: Lila’s parents make her young life a misery. After the death of her sister, Lila’s mother became very religious, her father distant. They are damaged by tragedy, not evil by intent. Do you think this represents a truth about dysfunctional families? What does it tell us?

Q: On the other hand, Morrigan, the Pagan leader, says: “I wanted to hear the screams.” Is he evil or just a sadist? What is the difference?

Q: Much of the novel is about what lies beneath the surface. Killgannon is not who he says he is, the apparently benign Round Table has been hijacked by the pagan views of Morrigan and his followers. Did you suspect that Rachel and/or Pearl’s parents might be involved in the Pagan group? What made you realise that the Round Table was not what it pretended to be, a community committee for improving the local economy through grant funding?

Q: Waites uses Paganism as a way of exploring everyday modern life and values (the concepts of community and family, for example). The Pagan theology and the alternative community lifestyles are at odds with generally accepted norms. Did the novel make you look at things differently?

Q: European funding support for tourism in Cornwall features in the story. The Round Table are seeking money for a scheme to regenerate the village; there is fear for the future of the local young people and increasing community disintegration without EU regional funding. Whether you agree or disagree, how do you feel about crime novels tackling a theme like Brexit? (Waites comments on Brexit in his interview at the end of the novel.)

Q: What motivates Tom Killgannon when he helps Lila? Is it a sense of guilt about his past failures? Is he seeking redemption or atonement?

Q: When he starts to uncover what is happening, why doesn’t Tom Killgannon go to the police? He already has contacts.

Q: Do you think Paganism, as it is portrayed in The Old Religion, exists in the modern Britain? Is this a distortion of some benign ancient beliefs?

Q: The Old Religion is an atmospheric novel. How does Waites create this feel to the book?

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