Serendipity again. But it happens to me so often when I pause before a shelf of second-hand books or squat down beside a cardboard box overflowing with third or fourth-hand books they are virtually giving away, that I think synchronicity would be a better word for it.
There I am, thinking I haven’t read a Roger the Chapman story for a long time, and later that day, or sometime the next day, there is a Roger the Chapman book pushing itself foward, offering itself on a platter to my greedy eyes and fingers.
And thus it was that a couple of days ago, I lit upon Kate Sedley’s The Wicked Winter, the sixth in the series, and set in bleak early spring – still winter! – of 1476. (I’m guessing the date as it is not specifically stated anywhere in the text.) Roger, now a widower with a baby daughter and a mother-in-law who looks after the baby – and Roger, too, when he comes home and stays put for a while. But he has itchy feet and soon sets off on his travels again.
For those of you who don’t know the series, Roger is a natural sleuth and has come to the attention of Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III), who has made use of his talents, but Roger prefers life on the open road, a life of peace and quiet, and here in this book when he sets out it seems he is going to get it. There is no summons from Richard bidding him hasten to London or wherever. What does happen is that he falls in with a puritanical friar, Brother Simeon, who is doing the rounds of the villages and manor houses preaching hell and damnation to all who will listen, and together, in a snow storm, they arrive at Cederwell Manor, where they discover the body of Lady Cederwell at the foot of the tower half buried in snow.
An accident? Neither Roger nor Brother Simeon thinks so, but that is the explanation given and accepted by the family.
The weather worsening, the two chance companions are obliged to stay at the manor house, which suits Roger at least because his sleuthing instincts have been aroused.
And are aroused still further when another murder occurs and an attempt is made on his own life.
His first suspect is naturally Sir Hugh Cederwell, who would clearly much prefer to be married to his beautiful neighbour, the widow Ursula Lynom, rather than his morbidly pious late wife. But all is not what it seems and there is more to it than that.
As with all Kate Sedley’s mystery novels, you are kept guessing – and turning pages! – until the last chapter.
But what I want to draw attention to here is some of the detail she brings in that I have come across in no other books set in that period.
For instance, the game of “camping” played by the village children. (You’ll have to read the book to find out about that.) And this: She rolled a little ball of beeswax into a pellet, popped it in her mouth and started to chew, a habit I’ve noticed amongst many people who like to exercise their jaws between meals. After a while they will spit the beeswax out, lodging it wherever is handy; under the edge of a table, on the rung of a stool, or even on the rim of a cooking-pot … Remind you of anything in the modern world?
Or a very apposite quotation from Walter Hilton’s The Scale of Perfection, which Roger happens to pick up and leaf through in Lady Cederwell’s chapel.
My eyes fell on some words in the Scale of Perfection.’It needeth not to run to Rome or Jerusalem to seek Christ, but to turn thine thoughts into thine own soul where He is hid …’ They were true when they were written, they are true today, and they will be true tomorrow and ever after.
Wonderful light – and not always so light – reading. If you can get hold of a copy. It seems to be out of print and for some reason has not been made available for download as an ebook, which is a great pity.