Ancient Celts, Modern Mysteries, and Imbolc

 by Susan Rowland

February 1st is St Brigid’s Day in Christian calendars, a baptism of Imbolc, the Celtic festival of the goddess, Brigid, who fosters fertility, sacred wells, and divination. I did not know this interesting fact when I chose this date as the publication of my first mystery novel, The Sacred Well Murders

And yet, I did know that the modern mystery novel inherits deep patterns from ancient myths such as the quest for the holy grail. For the modern fictional sleuth from Holmes to V.I. Warhawks who is a grail knight committed to doing good deals for the vulnerable in the community. He or she is on a quest for the grail, in the stories the truth that will heal the wasteland of a community blighted the worst of offences. To secure the grail of truth the sleuth/knight must seek out the right question. The wasteland stands for a family, society, city, or world whose fertility/wellbeing has been poisoned by murder. For unnatural death must be solved, or put another way, the crime dis-solved. By finding the solution, the grail sleuth enables the waters of life to return. Mystery fiction is profoundly about regeneration.

Of course, the modern mystery has many varieties. Arguably they all take part in a grail quest with different styles or tones. For example, detectives after culprits of grisly crimes with realistic violence often discover that solving the crime does not magically restore a world. These grail re-enactments tend to the tragic mode. Philip Marlowe solves the murder but, in so doing, uncovers the greater crime of the corruption city. He ends by living the moral suffering of the fisher king, another character in the myth. Here the mystery reveals that the hero model of the lone knight is not sufficient to find the grail. The knight has transformed into the figure signifying failure, the fisher king. The wasteland becomes internal to the discouraged sleuth. 

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Image Source Chiron Publications
I suggest that the other pole of the modern mystery grail quest contains the seeds of new varieties of heroism, better suited to the grail quests we face in the twenty-first century. This pole of the mystery genre is beautifully represented by the cozy mystery. This sub-genre provides a small social group whose fertile energy is restored by the solution to the crime of murder. The detective achieves the grail and the wasteland, whether situated in St. Mary Mead or Lake Eden, Minnesota, is restored to renewed life.

For my own writing I wanted to experiment by combining the cozy approach to the holy grail of truth with characters who at first appear as if the wasteland is indelibly cemented into them. Put simply, they have suffered too much or have troubles too chronic for a typical cozy. Is it possible to write a cozy with an edge? 

In fact, the cozy has a superpower for such a story: what literary critics call metafiction, fiction overtly about fiction. We read cozies and their close cousins, the ‘traditional mystery’ because we know what to expect and enjoy those expectations being met in new and exciting ways. Might it be possible to stretch the cozy, given metafictional expectations of regeneration?

Hence The Sacred Well Murders includes the aftermath of human trafficking, chronic mental illness, and spectacular family breakdown. Poor Philip Marlowe could never cope. Rather the story enables a different kind of feminine regenerative fertility to emerge. I imagine a tale of three marginalized women who find heroism in a murder mystery that brings them together. 

Mary Wandwalker is an older woman who has lost her job. She made such a mess of her private life that she has no family, unless… She can work with Caroline Jones, the widow of her dead son. Caroline loves Anna Vronsky, a formerly trafficked woman who was the girlfriend of Caroline’s husband. Given that Caroline’s chronic clinical depression and Anna’s inability to manage her own darkness, the story of The Sacred Well Murders demonstrates that not only do the three women need each other in their detecting, they also need what is damaged, dark, and vulnerable in each other. 

For what these inexperienced and at times ludicrous detectives face is a twenty-first century version of a perennial human problem, that of relating to our gods, whether they be called divine personalities, or emotions that we cannot control. 

A group calling themselves the Reborn Celts are teaching a Summer School in drought-ridden Oxford University. Convinced that the Celtic religion of divine nature is the solution to the climate emergency, they offer initiation by secret rituals. Beginning at an Oxford sacred well, the rites are connected by the river Thames and culminate in Celtic London. Unfortunately, the combination of war trauma and family breakdown - exacerbated by climate anxiety - causes several Reborn Celts to be possessed by notions of human sacrifice. With Mary Wandwalker chosen as the third victim, the race is on to find her before it is too late! Yes, there is humor in the mix of this story for humor has mercy.

Writing fiction of all kinds is a magical practice for we conjure worlds. Sometimes our characters talk back to us. This happened to me in writing The Sacred Well Murders. One character refused to stay dead and another from Celtic myth popped into the story of her own accord. 

Imbolc is the Celtic festival between winter solstice and spring equinox. It supports the stirring of new life and fertility of all kinds. Just as the grail quest is a call to dedicate oneself to the necessity of healing today’s wastelands, so too the mystery novel is a spell that calls to be read, re-enacted in every reading. I read mystery novels every day. I am writing more adventures for my three female heroes. This Imbolc they tiptoe into the world for the very first time. 

 Editor's Note: We recently reviewed Susan's book and interviewed her, you can check that out here

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section in Kings River Life and in our mystery category here on KRL News & Reviews. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. And check out our new mystery podcast which features mystery short stories and first chapters read by local actors! A new episode goes up next week.

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Susan Rowland is the author of two scholarly studies of mysteries by women and other books on C. G. Jung, gender, and the arts. The Sacred Well Murders is the first in a series. She lives in southern California with the poet, Joel Weishaus.
Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


  1. I like the book. I think it is super. Looking forward to another in the series.

  2. I like the book. I think it is super. Looking forward to another in the series.


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