The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

Review published on June 6, 2018.

It’s one superb thriller after another for me at the moment. The latest gem is The Old Religion by Martyn Waites, a novel that is bristling with pagan traditions and modern crimes. Strong in atmosphere, beautifully paced and with an explosive ending, what’s not to like? You can’t escape the references to The Wicker Man but this is not horror and that’s what makes it original and interesting. Its a dark tale but very much in the realms of the real world. The question is who’s real world:

“These are desperate times. And desperate times call for desperate measures. Now, I want you to listen carefully to what I have to say. And listen with an open mind.”

Waites sets the scene in this novel with the weather and the bleak landscape creating an atmosphere of dark brooding intensity. Kyle Tanner is off his face, a little too much weed, as he’s coming around, he accepts a lift from a girl in a VW van, he’s never seen again. It was Lila’s job to get him into the van but she has no idea what happened after that (in her mind, she knows it’s bad though). Only when she is watching the news days later does she realise the police are looking for Kyle and she is wanted as a witness. Suddenly, her boyfriend Kai won’t talk to her about it and she’s afraid to ask Noah, he runs the commune. When she tries to telephone the police, Noah and Kai lock her up, but Lila is resourceful and she manages to escape. There’s a storm settling in and she needs shelter, she breaks into Tom Killgannon’s house. Tom works at the local Pub in St. Petroc, The Sail Maker, when he returns he spots the broken window. He can see the girl is scared so he calms her, even feeds her. But when the local cop, Rachel Bellfair, calls on spec. Lila runs again, she pinches his coat and wallet. The problem is that the wallet contains information about his real identity, leaving Tom, who is hiding out from some really bad people, in jeopardy again. He needs that wallet back. His own fate and that of Lila are now bound together in ways they don’t realise yet. There are enemies around them and some of them are friends.

“Pagan, in its purest definition, meant ‘of the village’. That Morrigan knew was its true heart.”

The Old Religion doesn’t rely on forensics or technology, it’s refreshing in that sense. The novel can be seen as a dig at Brexit (it’s not the main theme, this isn’t polemic). You don’t take my word for that, you’ll see that Waites is pretty angry about the vote from the interview in the back of the novel (a bonus feature that readers will enjoy). Cornwall has been a recipient of European funding that benefited the farming/tourist industries and that feeds into the story. It’s also a crime novel that takes the thriller back to the country or at least to the coast, a rural setting that really feels right, and runs counter to the trend for the big city. Tom Killgannon is an outsider, a man on the run, inadvertently exposing what is going on. With Lila, a dark secret comes to light. Its all about what lies beneath the surface, things are not what they seem, that includes Tom, of course. The Old Religion is a great mix of modern and pagan beliefs, the contrasts are used to good effect. Grounded and realistic, The Old Religion has a cracking denouement. An interview with Martyn Waites and a Reading Group Guide for this novel will follow shortly.

Paul Burke 4/5

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites
Zaffre 9781785764318 hbk June 2018

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