The Witness for the Dead, Katherine Addison’s much anticipated follow up to The Goblin Emperor, is an engrossing murder mystery in a richly imagined world.
The Witness for the Dead
June 22, 2021
Thara Celehar investigates the questions left after a person dies, everything from cause of death to the whereabouts of a will, through his gods-given ability to question the remaining echo of a spirit in a dead body.
Far beyond the interest in any death he is witnessing, The Witness for the Dead is a character study of Thara Celehar. Racked with guilt from mistakes made in the past, unbearably lonely and feeling he deserves it, he moves through the book and his many exciting adventures in it, being surprised by every small comfort and consideration he is offered by other characters.
Celehar’s role in society as a Witness for the Dead is a combination of a religious role and a civic one. Appointed to ask the dead questions on behalf of those who petition him, he repeatedly goes above and beyond what is required of his position to save the innocent, offer compassion, and help people who ask. And then he’s surprised when people like him or are impressed by his achievements.
The murder mystery that shapes the plot of the book is the death of an opera singer, Min Shelsin. As we follow around Celehar as he investigates Min Shelsin’s murder, it becomes clear that she had been an unsavory character. She was pawning the jewelry given to her by admirers, stealing beautiful clothing from the wardrobe department at the opera, and causing trouble for everyone around her.
We aren’t sorry she’s dead, making Celehar’s investigation of her death a fun procedural puzzle. Like a noir mystery, it takes him into different neighborhoods, into encounters with different kinds of people; various seedy underbellies and different kinds of tea are explored.
Min Shelsin’s death, however, is only one of the issues facing Celehar, and while the investigation of this murder shapes the plot, it isn’t the only thing on Celehar’s mind. In fact, during a lengthy sequence of other activities in the middle of the book, he doesn’t think about Min Shelsin much at all. His other work as a Witness for the Dead also takes his time and attention, and the investigations he pursues intertwine in thematically interesting ways.
The Witness for the Dead takes place in the world of The Goblin Emperor, and its protagonist was a minor character in The Goblin Emperor, but it is not a sequel and the Goblin Emperor himself does not appear in this book. I think people’s love of that book will be a major draw to this one, but The Witness for the Dead can be read with little or no knowledge of what happened in The Goblin Emperor, which I, personally, appreciated.
There may be a trend toward standalone mysteries in already imagined worlds this year. Fugitive Telemetry, the sixth book in the Murderbot Diaries series, came out in April. It sees Murderbot solving a locked room mystery and would be a great jumping-on point for anyone interested in the series. The Box in the Woods, which came out earlier this month, has Stevie Bell from the Truly Devious trilogy solving a standalone mystery as well.
I, for one, am here for this trend. Standalone murder mysteries in an existing world offer maximum comfort. First, readers get the joy of returning to a world they enjoyed on a larger scale, this time for a smaller, self-contained story. It’s like enjoying a three course meal at a restaurant and going back another time for a snack. You know the quality and style to expect, and look forward to something lighter but still satisfying. Furthermore, standalone mysteries offer the promise that problems can be solved, and that’s exactly what I want from my leisure reading this year.