Murder at San Miguel by Danee Wilson

In her debut novel Murder at San Miguel, author Danee Wilson introduces readers to a Canadian couple who, to their dismay, are forced to become sleuths to solve a grisly murder in a foreign country.

The year is 1967, and retired archeologist and university professor Bill Forster, and his wife Beatrix—who has worked by his side as an archeological illustrator on digs around the world for four decades—receive a letter from a young priest who was a former anthropology student of Bill’s at the University of Toronto. In the letter, Father Pedro tells Bill the cemetery at a medieval sanctuary called San Miguel in Excelsis, located in the mountains of northern Spain close to the village of Navarre, must be excavated before machinery moves in to dig up the ground for new buildings to be added to what is becoming a popular tourist attraction. A medieval knight named Teodosio de Goñi is said to be the founder of the sanctuary, and Father Pedro says his current mentor at Navarre, an elderly priest named Father Josè María, believes the bones of Teodosio are buried at the sanctuary. Finding those bones would be a coup for the archeologist, and a treasure for the Catholic church of Spain.

Bill is thrilled. Retirement doesn’t really suit him. He’s restless and eager to accept. Beatrix however is reticent. For years on their digs their two young children often accompanied them, and besides working with Bill doing the painstaking work of recording everything they uncovered in illustrations Beatrix had the job of caring for the kids. She’s tired, and now in their retirement she’s looking forward to staying home, spending a lot more time with their grown children and young grandchildren. But in the face of her husband’s excitement, she gives in and tells him the job will be his present for his 70th birthday. So, together with eight students who will help with the dig, they set off for Spain.

Navarre and San Miguel are in Basque Country. As the Basque legend went, Teodosio de Goñi returned from Africa after a long absence without giving his family notice. Riding back to his castle, the knight heard a scream and found a man who’d been shot in the leg with an arrow in the forest. While Teodosio removed the arrow and bound the man’s wound, the man told Teodosio his wife, Constanza, was being unfaithful to him with a young groom Teodosio had hired before he left. Enraged, the knight rushed to the castle as fast as his horse could gallop. He arrived in the middle of the night and went straight up to his bedroom, where he saw two shapes under the blankets, drew his sword and murdered them. Pulling back the bloodied covers, he discovered he hadn’t killed his wife and her lover. Instead, he’d slaughtered his parents. He met his wife returning from midnight chapel, and learned it was the devil who’d told him his wife was cheating. Teodosio confessed his crime to the local bishop and was sent to Rome, where the Pope sentenced him to wander the Aralar mountains wearing heavy chains around his waist until the chains wore down and fell off. Teodosio wandered for years. While wandering, he was told of a female dragon who snatched people from the villages and fields to eat them and warned to stay away from her. But starving and disoriented, one day the knight wandered into the dragon’s cave. There, he found a young woman who had been given to the dragon by the people as a sacrifice to stop the dragon from killing others. Teodosio told the girl to run; that he would take her place. When the dragon came, the knight was snatched up in her claws and Teodosio prayed to St. Michael for help. In a flash of light, the archangel appeared and slashed the dragon’s throat and Teodosio dropped to the ground. He knelt to thank St. Michael and the archangel then cut off his chains and told him his sins were forgiven. St. Michael also told Teodosio to keep the chains close by him to remind him of the devil. The knight returned to his wife, who had waited for him all those years. Together, Teodosio and Castanza decided to honor St. Michael by building San Miguel in Excelsis, and they hung Teodosio’s chains in the church, where the chains still hang when Beatrix, Bill, Father Pedro, Father Josè María, and the eight students arrive at the sanctuary.

The novel is written from Beatrix’s point of view. She is self-described as ‘plump’, short, and suffering mobility problems aging can cause, while Bill is tall, but also less robust than he was in their youth. Despite their age and physical shape, the couple have retained their impressive abilities to observe and their curiosity, both of which are destined to be sorely tested in a place under the rule of a fascist regime and far removed from the comfort of their Toronto home.

In 1967, Spain has been governed by Francisco Franco for more than two decades, and though some aspects of the Fascist regime’s tightly held controls over its population are loosening, much of the population, including Father José María, still hold that education is wasted on women and women do not belong in the workforce. Their place is at home as wives and mothers. In spite of her earlier reticence to accept this dig, those views don’t sit well at all with Beatrix. The students she and Bill have brought with them include four boys and four girls. A fact Father Pedro accepts easily; Father José María not so much. But a fact nonetheless and since it’s the older priest’s dream to uncover the bones of the infamous knight, one he is forced to accept.

However, the combination of the eight students who do what young people do best—keep their activities secret from parents and/or guardians, the remote physical location (which includes an elderly housekeeper/cook who helps in the house and a taciturn maintenance man who keeps his distance from everyone), the presence of two priests with vastly different beliefs, and the political situation of the place, will become explosive and riddled with mystery. Mystery that will turn to real and present danger when one of the students is murdered.

The story is multi-layered with twists one does not expect. In spite of some trouble I had with the mannerisms the author employs to set the two main protagonists apart from the crowd (such as Beatrix’s repeated and often inappropriate use of the word ‘goodness’, and Bill’s sometimes unbelievable mind-drift), this couple are relatable and likeable and come to life as real people who might well have led such an expedition in the tumultuous time of change occurring world-wide in the 1960s. And despite the solution to the main mystery, which rings as too convenient, the aura of mystery is well set up and maintained throughout the book.

More importantly, Danee Wilson studied Spanish at the University of Calgary and archeology at the University of Saskatchewan. While studying, she returned to Spain each summer to take part in a search for victims of Francisco Franco’s regime. Later, she spent three field seasons helping excavate the medieval cemetery at San Miguel de Avalar in Navarre. So, though the umbrella for her novel is a mystery, the real meat of the text is in the details she brings to life about archeology, the terror of Franco’s regime, and the ins and outs of relationships between the sexes, the generations, and people with a variety of cultural ‘norms’ and opposing political views. Overall, Murder at San Miguel is an intriguing and satisfying read on many levels.

Danee Wilson grew up on the prairies in Regina, Saskatchewan. She completed a BA Hons in Spanish at the University of Calgary before moving to Spain to teach English. After over three years abroad, Danee once again returned home to Canada, completing a post-graduate diploma in public relations and communications management from McGill University. She currently resides in Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Radiant Press (Sept. 30 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 267 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1989274765
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1989274767

Since graduating from the Banff Centre Book Editing Program in 1996, Jocelyn has explored all facets of book-making. She is a published author of fiction and non-fiction, an editor, and the founder of two presses established to produce three anthologies that together contain the work of 66 British Columbia writers and artists. Since 2012, she has also written book reviews of children’s books for Canadian Materials Magazine. You  can see more about her on her website: