THE PLYMOUTH CLOAK by Kate Sedley

18 01 2017

A Roger the Chapman Mystery; England, 1473

Roger reminisces about Richard III (in the time of Henry Tudor!)

The Bishop’s Palace at Exeter stands in the lee of the Cathedral, a red sandstone building, in sharp contrast to the pale Beer stone of the church. As I entered behind Timothy Plummer, there was no sign of Bishop John Bothe, but there was a hum of activity involving both his and the Duke’s officials, whose general deportment and disdainful expressions – particularly when they deigned to glance at me – indicated the measure of their self-importance. This was totally at variance with the Duke’s own courteous manners and pleasant welcoming smile […]

I had forgotten how small and delicate-looking he was, the dark curtain of hair swinging almost to his shoulders. His mouth was thin and mobile, and a deep cleft ran between the upper lip and the wide nostrils of the straight Plantagenet nose. There were shadows round the eyes, as though he slept badly, and the chin was just a little too long and full for the true handsomeness of his big, blond, elder brothers. Yet in his lifetime, I have often heard of him spoken of as the most attractive of the three, and I know women found him very good-looking. (To say as much today is akin to treason, but I shall tell the truth and hang the consequences.)

plymouth-cloakAnother – early – Roger the Chapman mystery (making a total of four now reviewed on this site: the others are The Wicked Winter, The Burgundian’s Tale, and The Prodigal Son).

It is September, 1473, and as Roger Chapman plies his trade along the south coast of England he finds the towns and villages “rife with rumours of an impending invasion. It seemed that the exiled Lancastrians were stirring, beginning to take heart once more after their defeat at Tewkesbury two years previously.One might have thought, with King Henry and his son both dead, that the focus of their disaffection had vanished; but they had transferred their loyalty to young Henry Tudor …

The problem is Duke Francis of Brittany. If he gives Henry his support, then England could be faced with a major invasion. King Edward has written a letter to Duke Francis and entrusted it to his brother Richard, later Richard III and murdered by that same usurper, Henry Tudor.

Richard has brought the letter to Exeter, where he is to meet the Royal Messenger of Edward’s choice, a certain Philip Underdown. There, hearing that Roger is in town, he asks him to accompany Underdown to Plymouth and watch his back and see him safely aboard the ship that will call for him in two days’ time. The Lancastrians are after Underdown in order to prevent the letter reaching Duke Francis. The Woodvilles are after him because they believe he knows something detrimental to the beautiful but unpopular Queen Elizabeth (Woodville). And he has deadly enemies of his own.

Reluctantly, Roger agrees – he has little choice – and they set out for Plymouth, where they hear that the ship has been delayed, so they take shelter in a manor house out in the country, not far from Plymouth. There, Underwood soon gets into trouble chasing the women, a young bride with a jealous husband, and a widowed housekeeper who takes a maternal interest in Roger but is still certainly very attractive.

After two attempts on his life, Underwood hands the letter over to Roger, saying it will be safer with him. But will he be safer with it?

Then Underwood is in fact murdered, and with Roger’s own cudgel – the “Plymouth cloak” of the title. Roger is left with the King’s vital letter to deliver, but is not allowed to leave as he is, naturally, one of the suspects.

An excellent story, and another vivid look at the period of the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. I like this series more and more with every volume I read. 





RELICS by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

16 01 2017

England, 1235 (then Iceland, Greenland, France, Italy and the Greek islands)

relics-cover

The Murder

There was a ghastly whistling sound, and then the deacon’s blood burst from his neck in a thick roiling jet that hit me full in the chest. I staggered back, burning liquid in my eyes, in my hair, my mouth, running down inside my habit. There was a full-bodied reek of salt and iron and I gagged, spinning away in my soaking robes, the hot gore seething against my skin as it trickled down my back, under my arms and into the hair between my legs. The dead man in Sir Hugh’s arms whistled once more, an empty squeak that ended in a forlorn burble. I could see, as if through a red gauze, Sir Hugh still holding the deacon under the chin so that the weight of the corpse dragged its slashed throat apart into a vast wound in which secret things were revealed, white, yellow, red, like the inlaid patterns in the altar steps. I thought I saw the flap between head and torso stretch like dough in a baker’s hands, then I was running down the nave half-blind, blood squelching between my toes at every step. Behind me I could hear Sir Hugh’s voice echoing in the cavernous shadows. He was laughing, a great, warm laugh full of ease and pleasure. ‘Stop,’ he called, happily. ‘Come back, Petroc! What a mess you’ve made! What on earth made you do such a thing?’

This novel could have been titled “The Sucker’s Tale”.

When the book opens, a villainous ex-Templar now employed as a bishop’s steward (which, here at least, means minder/enforcer) is looking for someone to be the patsy. He finds one in the innocent and naive young student priest, Brother Petroc.

Next thing we know, Petroc is on the run accused of committing a horrifying murder. Everywhere he turns he finds people either already involved in the scheme or swiftly drawn into it by his presence.

Yet Petroc proves, under pressure, to be less of a sucker tham the one-time Templar Sir Hugh de Kervezy had anticipated.

He escapes on board a ship, and Sir Hugh is obliged to pursue him across the cold, dark North Atlantic (the Sea of Darkness) then back and down to the Mediterranean and eventually to the Isles of Greece, where the final confrontation between them occurs.

It is not just a page-turner though, it is well set in its period and also often made me stop and think. Like when Petroc’s more streetwise friend and fellow-student observes that the bishop “is no priest, he’s a lord, and a rich one. Interests, brother. They need to be protected. By people like the steward.

Or speaking of Greenland: “A sad place, too near the world’s edge for people to settle comfortably. In times past it was safe and green, but this age of the world is turning cold, and they freeze, little by little, year by year. […] The chill is creeping over the land …” We are usually informed that the name “Greenland” was Lief Ericsson’s way of conning people into going there as settlers. But what if that were not so? That Greenland did use to be green … Climate change I believe in, of course. I’m just not so sure about global warming …

But back to the book. Yes, it’s a great read. The copy I have here in front of me has been on my bookshelf for years, but I notice second-hand copies are going cheap, and it is now also available on Kindle.





THE BURGUNDIAN’S TALE by Kate Sedley

7 01 2017

A Roger the Chapman Mystery; England, 1480

[As promised yesterday, The Burgundian’s Tale, the story in which Duke Richard, soon-to-be King Richard III, does figure prominently.]

burgundians-taleBy mid-May of 1480, “the relationship between my wife and myself was at breaking point,” Roger the Chapman tells us, and he decides to set out once more on his travels, in search of “long spring days of quiet and solitude … walking knee-high through early morning mist and listening to lark song …”

But such is not to be. His old nemesis, Timothy Plummer reappears and informs him that Duke Richard requires his services in London, where one Fulk Quantrell (the Burgundian of the title) has been murdered. Who was Fulk Quantrell, demands Roger, and why is his demise so important? Fulk was the favourite of Princess Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy and sister of King Edward IV and Duke Richard: the Princess is at present in London on a state visit and the mystery must be solved before the visit is over.

Roger has no choice.

In London, he meets Duke Richard, who treats him as an old friend – and skilfully palms an assistant off on him, a young household officer named Bertram. A spy? Roger, who prefers to work alone, doesn’t know, but he is not impressed.

Their adventures in London remind one of Doherty’s London narratives; indeed her whole take on medieval London is reminiscent of his, including the typical medieval outsiders: beggars; pimps; prostitutes; a young male prostitute. Also like Doherty, Kate Sedley tends not to let her own – or the reader’s – mind wander, but to concentrate on the matter in hand, the investigation. Slowly, we sort out the perhaps rather-too-many members of Fulk’s family and begin to remember them and recognise them when they reappear, and to speculate which one of them might have dunnit.

I like Roger Chapman. A true hero, he is always reluctant, at least at first, to get involved, and he is a refreshing change from all the religious investigators that have sprung up in the wake of Brother Cadfael. I like the overtly sexy women he always finds himself up against. And I admire the way Kate Sedley builds the drama up for future books. How about this?

[Richard is speaking] ‘You’ll come and see me at Baynard’s Castle before you return to Bristol, I hope.’

I did, of course. As I have observed so often in the past, royalty’s hopes are tantamount to commands. Also present at our meeting was that ebulliant young man, the Earl of Lincoln, who threw his arms around my neck and hailed me as a genius. This extravagant and wholly undeserved praise was somewhat tempered by the discovery that Lincoln had had a substantial wager with his father, the Duke of Suffolk, that I would unravel the mystery within seven days, and could now claim his prize.

Nevertheless, I could not doubt that his admiration was genuine, and he assured me several times that he would not forget me. I groaned inwardly. I would much have preferred a life untrammelled by the esteem of princes, who were in the habit of regarding my time as their own. It was bad enough that the volatile Duke of Albany remembered me with gratitude, let alone having young Lincoln thinking of me very time he needed a mystery solved.

But there was nothing I could do about it.

All perfectly phrased, and leaving you impatient for that next book, that next encounter between the pedlar and the princes – all in the sure and certain knowledge that during the coming five years Edward IV will die, Richard will seize the throne, Edward’s sons will disappear from the Tower, and Richard will be defeated by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth – marking the end of the Wars of the Roses and indeed the end of the medieval period.

What part did our Roger play in all that?





THE PRODIGAL SON by Kate Sedley

6 01 2017

A Roger the Chapman Mystery

Bristol and Wells, 1480

prodigal-son-coverThere was a brief silence, during which astonishment was gradually replaced by outrage on the faces of Audrea Bellknapp and her younger son.

[…]

‘How dare you countermand my orders like that?You absent yourself for eight years – eight years, mark you! – without a word as to your whereabouts, leaving us uncertain as to whether you are alive or dead. You return home with no advance warning to disrupt all our lives, and then immediately assume you can usurp the authority which I hold in trust for your brother. Not only that, but you also have the gall to foist your disreputable friend on us’ – I realised with a shock that she meant me – ‘and then expect us to treat him with the same courtesy as we should use towards one of our guests.’

Dame Audrea paused to take breath, but Anthony gave her no chance to proceed further. In a voice as coldly furious as her own, he reminded her again that he was now the master of Croxcombe Manor. ‘And so that there should be no doubt on that head, on my way here, I took the precaution of calling on lawyer Slocombe and confirming the contents of my father’s will. Croxcombe is left to me provided I claim my inheritancebefore Simon reaches the age of eighteen.’ He gave a malicious smile. ‘And as I remember that I was already past my tenth birthday when he was born, and as I am now twenty-five […] I am therefore the master here, my dear mother, and anything I choose to do must, I’m afraid, be acceptable to you and Simon or you can arrange to make your home elsewhere.’  

I like Roger the Chapman and his dog Hercules – especially when they get the chance to do what they both like best: leave the house and the noisy children and the city behind and head out into the country with a pack of odds and ends to sell to the peasants in isolated hamlets, to charcoal burners in the forest, and even to “the great and good” in their manor houses. (You can find a review of another in the series here.)

This time, Roger is making his way towards the country home of the great but definitely not good Bellknapp family in order to find out why Dame Bellknapp has identified an apparently innocent man in Bristol as the person who committed robbery and murder in her home six years earlier.

At a wayside inn, he falls in with the heir to the Bellknapp estates and fortune, Dame Bellknapp’s elder son Anthony, the prodigal son of the title, returning home to claim his inheritance after years away in the eastern counties. How welcome will this young man be after all this time?

An apparently simple tale of jealousy that quickly becomes more and more complex, just as a medieval mystery should. And as always with Kate Sedley’s books, extremely well written – and with fascinating details of Roger’s background that I for one had not come across before.

But a complaint to the publishers, Severn House. The blurb on the back cover is for a quite different book, The Burgundian’s Tale. (I”ll post a review of that story tomorrow, promise.)  This is the first time I’ve come across this particular example of almost criminal publisher negligence. Anyone not knowing Kate Sedley’s work who picks the book up in a bookshop and buys it on the strength of the blurb (which is all about Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III, who does not figure in the book at all) is hardly likely to buy another of her books. In any other profession the person responsible for such an error (persons responsible, for no doubt someone was supposed to check the cover) would be dismissed out of hand: publishers, though, don’t give a damn. And after all, when the only full day you do is on Wednesday (leave early on Thursday afternoon for the long weekend, arrive back late Tuesday morning) that doesn’t leave much time for actual work.





THE LILY AND THE SWORD by Sara Bennett

30 12 2016

Northumbia, 1070

lily-and-sword-coverNorthumbria in 1070, like the rest of England, was still reeling from the impact of the Norman invasion four years earlier. On the whole, you could say that the English – those of Anglo-Saxon and Danish origin who had lived in England for generations – still to a large extent opposed the Norman incomers. This was mainly William’s fault. Instead of assuming the crown and letting the country go on happily as it always had, so that no one was really inconvenienced by the change, he granted all his Norman followers huge estates, dispossessing the English land-owners and building up an atmosphere of bitter resentment and enmity that would last for generations to come.

The heroine, Wilfreda, known as Lily, the beautiful heiress to large tracts of Northumbria – her father was a powerful English earl, her maternal grandfather the King of Norway – has already been very unhappily married once to a Norman, Vorgern, but he is now dead and she has reluctantly become the focus of a widespread rebellion led by her childhood friend Hew. William sends his most trusted, and most feared, general, Radulf, “the King’s Sword”, to put down the rebellion – and Lily falls into his hands.

However, she claims to be someone else, a friend of hers whose family have supported the Normans, so instead of sending her straight off to William, he keeps her with him – and falls in love with her.

And she with him.

And that is what is is, a love-story, (the) Lily and the Sword. Hew, a nasty piece of work, is represented as the villain, Radulf as a good man and a great warrior who is simply doing his job, serving his king.

It is an enthralling story, it is well written and it has a convincing background, much of it being set in early medieval York. But I can’t help wondering whether a young Englishwoman who embraced the Norman conquerors quite so enthusiastically – albeit in the name of peace – would have been as popular as Lily apparently is with “her people”. Imagine a Nazi Britain in 1949 …





RIP Richard Adams

29 12 2016

watership-down-cover

We all know, and most of us treasure, Watership Down. I want here to draw attention to three of Richard’s other books that I have particularly enjoyed

‘First then, The Plague Dogs:

plague-dogs-cover

Two dogs escape from an experimental research lab in the Lake District, where they have been horribly tortured and mistreated in the name if science. As they run for their lives on the hard fells they attempt to survive wild and free. But the hunt in on…

Next Shardik

shardik-cover

A gripping tale of war, adventure, morality and slavery, horror and romance, Shardik is a remarkable exploration of mankind’s universal desire for divine incarnation, and the corrosive influence of power. Recently ranked in the top 100 bestsellers over the past 40 years by the Sunday times, Shardik is a book for our age.

And finally, Maia, which is set in the same world as Shardik:

maia-cover

Sold into slavery to the dealer Lalloc by her mother when her stepfather seduces her, the beautiful 15-year-old Maia is almost raped by Genshed, one of Lalloc’s employees but is saved by Occula, a black slave girl. With no-one but Occula at her side, Maia must summon all her courage, strength and intelligence as she navigates the seedy side of the Beklan empire.

I am about to re-read Shardik and Maia. The other one, The Plague Dogs, is just too heart-rending: I can’t go through that again!





THE DEVIL’S PRAYER by Luke Gracias

28 12 2016

devils-paryer-cover

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

In the 13th Century, in order to save his life, a monk did a deal with the Devil, and as a result the Codex Giga, the Devil’s Bible, came into being. It was lost for centuries, then rediscovered, but by this time, twelve pages of the original manuscript were missing, the twelve vitally important pages known as the Devil’s Prayer.

It is said that one day a woman will give birth to the child of the Devil. And if this person ever gets his hands on the pages of the Devil’s Prayer, then all Hell will be let loose on the world.

When the story opens, we are in the convent of Sancta Therese, a few miles north of Zamora, Spain. There, during the Semana Santa (Easter Week), a secret ritual is enacted, as it has been every year since the 1200s, but this time, at its climax, a nun commits suicide by hanging herself from the bell-tower.

Meanwhile, in Australia, in a world as different as it can well get, a young woman called Siobhan Russo is informed by a priest that her mother, Denise, who has been missing from home for six years, has committed suicide in Spain. That she was a nun going by the name of Sister Benedictine. And that she, Siobhan, must travel at once to Spain, to collect in person a message her mother left for her.

It turns out that Denise, the mother, had done a deal with the Devil years earlier, in order to get revenge and healing after she had been raped and left paralysed. This rape and its consequences form a vivid short story which stands out as rather different from the rest of the book, and after reading it we identify with Denise quite as much as we do with her now grown-up daughter Siobhan. At that time, the Devil had healed Denise in exchange for the souls of her attackers. But her dealings with the Devil had not stopped there. The Devil later brought the child Siobhan back to life after she had drowned in their swimming-pool.

But I am telling you too much of the story. Read it for yourself. It is brilliantly researched and replete with fascinating details. And don’t be put off by all this about “the Devil”. This is a very real, very evil, Devil, a Devil it is almost impossible to say No to – and as the author says in the book, “God and the Devil – one does not exist without the other.” It is a story I shall never forget, and full of characters I shall never forget.

I visited the website http://www.devilsprayer.com and found some marvellous photos of the scenes where the more bizarre sections of the story are set. Here is one of them:

bonechapel