THE BURGUNDIAN’S TALE by Kate Sedley (Review)

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.]

By 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 succeed him on 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 (Review)

A Roger the Chapman Mystery

Bristol and Wells, 1480

There 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 WICKED WINTER by Kate Sedley (Review)

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.