Barnabas Tew and the Case of the Cursed Serpent is an unusual cozy detective story with a unique slant. It plays like Percy Jackson meets Hercule Poirot but fails to capture the charm of either. Barnabas Tew and his assistant Wilfred are a pair of Victorian era detectives who find themselves embroiled in an otherworldly mystery. Hot off the trail of their previous adventure the quirky little duo suddenly appear far from home in the depths of Central America. There they charged with stopping the Mayan gods of death from destroying the world….more or less.
The main characters are well developed. They have recognizable and consistent traits and voices. Sadly, they aren’t really engaging or likable. They are more like a tedious coworker. You don’t hate them but when they start talking you suddenly remember those copies you MUST go make…immediately. The humor, though attempted often, almost never lands. You can see elements of similar quirky detectives like Poirot or Dirk Gently, but Barnabas and Wilfred lack a sense of balance. Where we forgive Poirot’s stuffiness because of his kindness, nobility, and genius Barnabas Tew merely comes off as whiny and judgmental. Similarly, Tew’s assistant Wilfred lacks the inner strength and purpose that drives the sidekicks like Dr. Watson or Poirot’s Hastings. There is little counter balance between the two. They are too similar to provide any sort of foil but not similar enough that they feel like two peas in a pod.
The concept too is interesting, two rather unassuming detectives who stumble into the affairs of Gods is fun. However, he fails to bring either to life
The setting is great and the research the author did keeps the book going. In the end though it ends up being a bit of a missed opportunity. The first half of the book suffers from a case of a lot of telling with little showing. We are repeatedly told the jungle is dangerous. And yet, our heroes often face little more than the threat of being damp and slightly annoyed. The glimpses of Mayan life we get is really cool but ultimately feels a bit more like window dressing. Thankfully, author Columbkill Noonan’s writing is technically fairly good. Her prose as a gently flow that fits the “cozy” genre well. It makes the rest of the books problems almost tolerable.
There are other positives here; The Mayan gods make for a really unique and interesting cast of characters. Despite knowing a fair about mythology and folklore of various cultures myself, I am not too familiar with Mayan civilization. It was really cool to learn about the various gods, their roles, and their appearances. But each of them lacked a sense of power or menace. They all seem to drift listlessly in and out of the story.
The author’s attempts to build excitement or intrigue rarely work. There is a running thread early on concerning a sacrificial ball game. The foreshadowing is fairly clumsy and the author tips her hand early on. This makes the subsequent foreshadowing and the build up to it rather tedious and repetitive. By the time the essence of the game is revealed it has no umph behind it.
The author does use the occasion to make some poignant comparisons between what is seen as the savage Mayan culture and the the “civilized” English culture. It is somewhat diminished by the characters refusing to use the Mayan God’s names, feeling they are too hard to pronounce. So instead the gods are called things like Mr. Bees. This could have underscored a sense of elitism in the characters, which would have been culturally and historically accurate. However, the author chooses to do this in the prose as well as the dialogue which makes the joke seem lazy at best and culturally insensitive at worst. While I am inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt – that it was an attempt at humorous characterization – it ultimately seemed in poor taste to me.
The plot is interesting and well developed. The problem is it’s so mired in the other issue that it’s hard to care. I honestly wanted to like this novel more than I did. I think Noonan deserves credit for creating an original set of characters in a rather unique story that flows in a professional manner. That is not an easy thing to do. It just didn’t work for me. I would say if you are a die hard cozy detective enthusiasts who likes supernatural twists, or those with a deep interest in Mayan culture should check this out. Everyone else – its a hard pass. However, reviews are subjective. Check out the other reviews on this book tour, hopefully I am the lone sour grape here. You can find the book tour sites and dates on the image below as well as links to purchase Barnabas Tew and The Case of The Cursed Serpent
Columbkill Noonan is the author of the bestselling “Barnabas Tew” series, which features the bumbling-yet-lovable Victorian detective Barnabas and his trusty sidekick, Wilfred. Columbkill combines her love of mythology and her affinity for period fiction to craft unique cozy mysteries that will leave you guessing (and chuckling!) till the very end.
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