24 10 2017

Kent, England, 1193

A while back, I picked this book up in India and carried it with me through Burma without ever having the time or the seclusion to start reading. Or being in the right – medieval – mood. Then I unpacked my bag in Bangkok and read the first few pages before I fell asleep – it was mid-morning, but I was tired – then carried on reading it in the evening sitting outside a bar on RCA when I should have been watching the world go by (I had come so far to see it!) until finally I had to put the book down when I was joined by my date: a man who, it turned out, seriously believed that books and women do not belong together, that education is wasted on us, and that literacy should be the preserve of men. I argued a little then gave up: it was easier to leave him happy in his own sense of superiority. After all, we were only together for one thing. For real companionship he would turn to his equals – other men. Very medieval.

Which brings me back to the book.

Whiter that the Lily comes somewhere in the middle of the Abbess Helewise/Josse d’Aquin series of medieval mysteries (it was one I had somehow missed) and is set in the year 1193, when King Richard the Lionhearted, was being held prisoner at Trifels Castle in what is now southern Germany. A huge ransom in gold has been demanded which Richard’s mother, the ageing Eleanor of Aquitaine, is busy extorting from Richard’s impoverished subjects in England. Apart from some sympathy shown by Abbess Helewise for her poorer tenants, though, we see little of the hardship, only enthusiasm for raising the money and freeing the (French-born and French-speaking) King from his humiliating captivity. Probably because the main characters are all Norman aristocracy.

Sir Josse d’Aquin is introduced to an elderly nobleman who promptly informs him that his very young and very beautiful wife, Galiena, is barren, and that she is desperate for a child. ‘She is a herbalist herself, my Galiena [he tells Josse]. She has tried everything she can think of. Even what I believe are quite desperate remedies.‘ The anguished expression making him look even older, he went on, ‘I see her at night, you see. Oh, she thinks that she does not disturb me, that I sleep blissfully on when she creeps out of my bed. But I awake, sir, always I awake. I perceive her sudden absence, even if I am deeply asleep. And I go to the window, from which I can look down on the garden, and I watch as she enacts her rites. Only often she conceals herself, you understand, she slips away to where I can no longer see her. It is easily done.’ He sighed. Staring out over the garden, dropping to a whisper, he said, ‘Naked under the moonlight she is, her lovely body so pale and white. So beautiful. So beautiful.’

Josse is embarrassed by these revelations, and sceptical about Galiena’s supposed barrenness (the man is old enough to be Galiena’s grandfather!) but keeps his thoughts to himself and, when pressed to do so, agrees that a visit to the infirmerer at Hawkenlye Abbey can do no harm and might well help.

Then the murder is committed – two murders, in fact – and Josse finds himself up against a strange pagan community left over from Saxon times and living deep in the marshes. What is the connection between the blonde, blue-eyed Galiena and these people whom she so resembles physically? Josse remembers the pagan dance Galiena used to perform in the garden at home before she ever went to Hawkenlye …

This is the account of his first “meeting” with the Saxon shaman of this community, the inheritor of an ancient tradition still living in Norman (Roman Catholic) times. It is night and having been caught in a great storm, Josse is sleeping out in a coppice on the cliff above the marshes:

It was still totally dark. Never before had he experienced the sensation of literally not being able to see his hand in front of his eyes. He was just experimenting, wriggling the fingers of his right hand to see if he could make out the movement, when it happened.

There was no warning, not one single sound to put him on guard. There was just the one flash of bright light and , right there in front of him, a face staring intently into his, so close that he could look into the silver-grey eyes and feel the cool breath on his cheek.

Then darkness closed in again.

Sweat breaking out on his cold flesh and his heart in his throat, Josse fought for control. His body remembered its training even while his horror-struck mind was in shock and he was on his feet, sword in hand, lunging forward out of the shelter, before he knew it. Then his voice came back and he shouted in a great roar, ‘Who’s there? Show yourself!’

Nerve endings tingling as he subconsciously awaited the blow, he twisted from side to side, his sword making great deadly sweeps in a wide arc in front of him. ‘Shiow yourself!’he cried again. ‘I am armed and I will attack if you approach again without warning!’

But I cannot see him, he thought. How can I attack what I can’t see?

He waited, listening.

There was nothing.

Presently the rain began to fall again.

As always with this series, Whiter than the Lily is excellently written, and this time with a stunning dénoument. Also this time, we see the Abbess Helewise at her best, and Josse, though as courageous as ever, definitely a little slow on the uptake.


DEATH OF A SQUIRE by Maureen Ash

24 07 2017

(The second Templar Knight Mystery)

Lincoln, autumn, 1200 AD

‘He’s nowt but a lad,’ said Talli. ‘Looks to be no more than fifteen or sixteen. And from the way he’s been trussed, he didn’t string himself up there. Why would anyone bring a youngster like that out here and hang him?’

‘I don’t know and I don’t care,’ Fulcher replied. ‘I’m going to forget I ever saw him and if you two have any sense in your addled pates you’ll do the same.’

Laden with their booty, the three men made haste down the track towards the stream that had been the destination of the deer thay had killed. In its water the poachers would place their steps until they were well away from the scene of their crime so that any dogs used to track them would lose their telltale scent and the smell of the deer’s blood. Above them a slight breeze rattled the dry branches of the oak and the body swayed slightly, then moved a little more as the first of the crows landed on the bright thatch of hair that topped the corpse’s head. Twisted under the noose, caught by the violence of the tightening rope, was the boy’s cap, the colourful peacock’s feather that had once jauntily adorned it now hanging crushed and bedraggled. As the crows began their feast, it was loosened and fluttered slowly to the ground.

This is the second book in the series and I haven’t read the first, but that wasn’t a problem. You are soon put in the picture. An ex-Templar, Sir Bascot de Marins, is living at Lincoln Castle. He had already solved one murder for the castellan, Lady Nicolaa, (the first book) and now when another nysterious death occurs she turns to him again.

A young man, a squire, has been hanged deep in the forest. He was trussed up, so it cannot have been suicide. Nicolaa’s husband, the Sheriff, a rather stupid man interested only in hunting who leaves all his more boring duties to her, wants to blame it on poachers or outlaws, easy scapegoats, but the boy’s dagger and fine clothing were not stolen, so Nicolaa and de Marins think that unlikely.

It turns out that the squire, Hubert de Tornay, was an unpleasant boy. No one could stand him and no one is sorry he is dead. There are many potential suspects. What worries Nicolaa, though, is that the boy had apparently been claiming to know details of a conspiracy against the king. In the year 1200, “Bad King John” was still new to the throne and many felt that the king should really be John’s nephew Arthur, a boy who lived in France. What was worse, King John himself was on his way to Lincoln to meet there with King William of Scotland. The murderer had to be found before King John’s arrival for John was a suspicious and vindictive man.

The squire was also a notorious woman-chaser, so there are girls involved. He had had a rendez-vous in the forest with a village girl that night. But he had been seen riding into the forest with a woman from the city up behind him on the horse. Or had he? Were the villagers lying?

De Matins questions a charcoal burner and his sons who live in that part of the forest. The next day they are brutally murdered. Then his servant, Gianni, disappears – kidnapped. Gianni was a starving street-kid de Marins had picked on his travels, and had now grown very fond of. Was the kidnapper also the murderer of the squire and the charcoal-burner’s family?

It is exciting and well-written, and seems historically accurate. I am certainly going to read the first book in the series, The Alehouse Murders, as soon as I can get hold of a copy. I also want to know what will happen in the third book. At the end of this one, de Marins is faced with a difficult choice: to return to the Order of the Templars and full obedience, or to renounce all his ties with them and cease to call himself a Templar. What will he do?