A crime thriller about a policewoman who becomes a nun. The tagline is 'When she was a cop, she made their life hell. Now she's a nun, God help them!'
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Before taking her vows, Sister Rose was Maggie Weaver, a Newcastle policewoman, who, while uncovering a serial killer, suffered severe trauma. While being nursed back to health she becomes a nun. In her new calling she finds herself sent to London to run a hostel for the homeless. Here, while doing good works, she combats prejudice and crime.
As she attempts to save a homeless woman from a local gang boss, events crystallise, taking her back to Newcastle, the scene of her nightmares, to play out the final confrontation against drug traffickers, murderers and old enemies in the police.
She finds her spiritual self and a new identity. She is healed through faith and forgiveness. It’s also about her surviving trauma and grief – a triumph of the human spirit, of good over evil.
The first chapters were joint runner-up in the Harry Bowling Prize 2006.
Another hose-pipe ban loomed. Still, I was glad to be back in stifling grime- and crime-ridden London, even if sweat pooled in the small of my back. Sweat that caused my scars – and there were plenty – to itch.
Just my luck, the cabbie had to drop me at the end of the ill-lit Dogleg Alley because British Gas repairmen had decided to transform a good hundred yards of road leading to the hostel into a facsimile of the First World War trenches. I don’t know whether the short-cut was named as it has a kink in it or because it seems like all of the city’s dogs cock their legs here. And not only dogs, my nose reminded me.
The cabbie had offered to carry my bags, probably because I was a nun rather than a woman. Oddly, some men make the distinction. I’d declined and tipped him anyway; I thought I could manage. But right now I regretted my sinful little pride. The weight of the bag seemed to increase with every step – there’s probably a scientific law to explain that.
Alexander Pope’s observation felt very true as my shoulders ached: ‘Pride, the never-failing vice of fools.’
Sweat made my hand slippery, so I had to switch the bag and wipe the wet palm on my habit. Thankfully, the black serge didn’t show stains. Right now I yearned for the white cotton habit I wore throughout the lecture tour of Southern Spain, Portugal and Italy.
An open window above emitted flickering purple light from a TV: I could hear laughter and the distinctive baritone of Frasier’s voice. I’d caught the occasional repeat show in Italian and Spanish – they translated quite well.
The window next door was open too, and I heard the sounds of desperate love-making. I stopped and lowered the bag, recalling with a mixture of emotions the nights with Mike, and smiled at the dear memories. The couple probably wanted to get it over with and take a shower to cool off. I know I did, standing there, discovering traitorous emotions long dormant. Strange, how I never expected I would miss sex when I joined the Order. Try telling that to a healthy thirty-year-old body, though.
‘Sublimate, Sister Rose,’ Sister Emily had told me, her eyes twinkling, during those first months in the Mother-house at Godshill, ‘sublimate!’
‘That’s the only mating I’ll be doing from now on!’ I’d replied mournfully.
Arm now rested, I picked up the bag and headed deeper into the alley.
God knows, I didn’t mean to kill him. As a rule – how we religious delight in our rules! – nuns don’t kill or maim.
I was just approaching the dogleg in the alley when he came rushing round the corner out of the darkness. As he thudded into me, methylated spirit fumes fanned my face in heavy gut-wrenching waves.
Winded, I staggered back and dropped the bag.
He swore and raised a hand – which I promptly hit with the edge of my own. Instinct and training took over. I grabbed his arm and twisted it into a painful lock and thrust him away, towards the opposite brick wall.
His forehead made an unpleasant noise as it hit the brick and his legs buckled under him and he slumped against the wall.
I’d acted without thought, in self-defence.
Now, as I took in his clothes – he was wearing two shirts and a wind-cheater in this heat, sports-leggings and Nike trainers – I thought I recognised him.
Tramps tend to wear their entire wardrobe. Arthur was a tramp. About twice a week he’d appear at the kitchen door for a mug of soup and some bread and he’d occasionally ask if we had any stout too. From time to time, I’d see him roaming the Bermondsey streets.
He didn’t move.
Legs suddenly feeling wobbly like jelly, I knelt beside him.
Thank God, he wasn’t dead, only unconscious. His breathing was shallow. I pulled out my Maglite pen-torch and put on my spectacles. I checked under his lids: both pupils dilated to a large size as I passed a hand over them. No signs of subdural hematoma. Apart from a pronounced bruise on his forehead, he looked otherwise unhurt. Though later tonight, I conceded guiltily, he would wake up with an almighty headache.
I thought of Abbess Ursula’s all too frequent admonishment: ‘It is wise not to be over-hasty in action, Sister Rose.’ A few more Hail Marys tonight, I told myself resignedly.
Just before I switched off the torch I noticed something glinting in Arthur’s hand. A gold earring. Definitely not his style. But why would he steal only one? Unless he’d dropped one as he fell? I shone the torch over the ground but couldn’t see any answering gold glint. Gold sells, yes, it buys booze and drugs, though in Arthur’s case he was a drunk, not a user.
I caught myself rubbing the left side of my head under the wimple. A mannerism bred of stress and memories I’d rather forget.
Against my better judgment I stepped over Arthur and walked cautiously further down the alley. I left my bag to keep him company. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Every step tightened the tension in my stomach. An old fear re-surfaced, a fear I had thought long since exorcised by prayer and time. Nightmares had hardly ever visited my sleep in the last six months, for which I was thankful. Yet every fibre of my being convinced me that this ill-lit alleyway promised to be a real nightmare.
There is a distinctive smell about death, a universal death-scent. I’d been on the scene of more deaths than I cared to remember and knew the smell only too well. My palms were sweaty again, but it had nothing to do with the heat of the night. My mouth was dry as I walked slowly, fearing what I would find yet knowing the inevitability of it.
A pile of cardboard boxes and cartons cluttered the area. A black buzzing cloud of flies hovered. A rank stomach-heaving smell wafted up from the boxes. But I couldn’t turn away.
Unmistakable. A corpse among the boxes.
‘Seen one, seen them all’ is a phrase that for me doesn’t apply to dead bodies. Each has an individuality, whether it’s the manner of the death, the deceased’s age, the clues left around and on the body, the life cut short, the loved ones left behind.
Some professions confront death almost daily; yet while the people might behave professionally, they are still affected. That makes them human. Police and fire-fighters, doctors and nurses, they face death in all its guises, but very few can remain cold and indifferent to its presence. Black or gallows humour is only a defence, not disrespect.
I remember Moody the Pathologist - he never seemed to show any concern for his raw material. When I tackled him, he said, ‘If you believe in a soul, it’s left the body by the time I get to it. What’s left is meat – meat with a history and clues.’ As I did believe in the spirit surviving death, I thought Moody was probably right.
But it didn’t lessen the shock of seeing Angela’s shapely black body lying among those cardboard boxes.
This was a night for recognition.
‘Always look up at the crime-scene,’ our Sergeant Bishop told us. You never know what might get thrown at you – one policeman on our shift was flattened by a DVD player thrown from a tenement balcony. So I glanced up – another open window. By the way Angela was lying, it looked like she’d been thrown out. My heart tumbled in sympathy at the thought.
The Past Bites Back
It may be a contentious statement, but it’s true. More women read books than men. As with all generalisations, there are exceptions. Thrillers are probably a male province, though not entirely. Crime is popular with women, as is horror crime. I’d put in this latter category the works of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Mo Hayder and Tess Gerrittsen. A newcomer to this fold is expat writer Nik Morton with PAIN WEARS NO MASK (Libros International, pb £7.99, 322pp, ISBN 1-905988-30-3). The first chapters of this novel won the joint runner-up prize in the last Harry Bowling competition; maybe it had something to do with the high body-count or the fact that once the narrator begins, the reader can’t let go.
I can’t say I’m too religious, so I wasn’t sure I would go for a crime story about a nun who used to be a policewoman. I was wrong. Once I picked up this damned book, it was very hard to put it down.
Sister Rose has returned from a lecture tour and is walking to the hostel for the homeless, where she’s chief nun and bottle washer. Unfortunately, she stumbles on a corpse – a woman she knew. She hurries to the hostel to call the police but her nightmare gets worse. She finds a murdered and mutilated nun in her office. Is it a warning, or was she the intended victim?
Detective Sergeant Adam Merriday interviews her. He’s surprised to find that Sister Rose used to be a policewoman in Newcastle upon Tyne. Until she encountered a serial killer, Dr Face, who almost made her his next victim. Was this a copycat murder, five years afterwards? Why was this Mimic murdering people to harass Sister Rose? The past has come back to haunt – and maybe kill - her.
There are plenty of sub plots boiling away too. As the investigation into the various deaths progresses, DS Merriday and Sister Rose find themselves being attracted to each other. Then one day Gemma, a homeless young woman, seeks help to evade a local crime boss, Slaughter. She won’t say anything incriminating, she just wants somewhere to hide. Later, Gemma does a runner up north with the hostel’s petty cash. And Merriday tells Sister Rose that Gemma’s younger sister has incriminating evidence that would lead to the conviction of Slaughter. Just one snag – she’ll only give it to Sister Rose. So Sister Rose must return to Newcastle, the place of her nightmares, for the sake of the young girl and her own soul’s peace.
Sister Rose is one of those rare characters in fiction, an original creation. Because of her earlier career, she’s street-wise and tough. She joined the Order after being nursed back to health by the nuns in a small Newcastle hospital. These are not nuns who shut themselves away from the world and pray; they go out as missionaries, driving Jeeps and tilling fields to help the poor. When Sister Rose returned from her mission in Peru, she was given the hostel to run in Bermondsey. Here, she meets all kinds of folk – each with a story to tell. I found the background – religious and secular - as interesting as the main storyline.
Like a lot of modern horror crime, it may not be for the squeamish, but if you like your thrillers fast-paced, intelligent and brimful with intriguing characters, then this one is for you.
- THE LEVANTE JOURNAL, June 2008, Helen Ross
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Reader Reviews for "Pain Wears No Mask"
|Reviewed by Kathleen Janz-Anderson
|I've read this excerpt and another on Nik's blog. I'm mesmerized by the story, and can't wait to read it.|