THE ALEHOUSE MURDERS by Maureen Ash

17 11 2017

The first of the Templar Knight Mysteries (I have already reviewed the second, here, and another – not the third but the fifth – follows immediately.)

Lincoln, AD 1200

No one had been told why the Templar was in Lincoln. Gerard Camville had said in passing that de Marins had been on crusade in the Holy Land with the now-dead King Richard back in ’91, and had been captured by the Saracens during a skirmish near Acre at the end of that year. After eight long years of captivity he had recently escaped. It was obvious that he had been tortured during his incarceration, for he wore a leather patch over the eye-socket of his missing right eye and walked with a pronounced limp. When, early one morning, he came into the hall to break his fast after attending Mass in the castle chapel, all eyes had turned his way but, although polite, he had said nothing of his past and seemed disinclined to talk about it. […]

As he began to recover his health, he had taken to practising his combative skills in the yard, first with a blunted sword against the wooden stake erected for the purpose, and finally with Ernulf in mock battle using both sword and shield. While he seemed to have regained his former weight, his prowess with a sword was hampered by the lameness of his leg and the blindness of one eye. For all that, he still made a formidable opponent for Ernulf, who needed all the tricks he had learned in his many years as a soldier to keep pace with the Templar

The scene is Lincoln Castle one year early in the reign of bad King John – though no one here seems particularly against him, or to remember his brother Richard the Lionheart with any affection. They do look back on the days of Richard and John’s father, Henry II, and his queen, Eleanor, as “the good old days”, but that is normal, as is one very bright old lady being scornful about Eleanor’s “Courts of Love”.

It is high summer. The Sheriff of Lincoln, Gerard Camville, is out hawking by the river with his wife, Lady Nicolaa de la Haye, and their attendants, when urgent news arrives: four people have been found dead in a local alehouse. It is Nicolaa who goes to sort out the problem. She is the chatelaine of the castle, her father’s heir, and tends to run things her way, with the compliance of her husband, who just wants to be left in peace to enjoy his knightly pursuits.

The man Nicolaa calls upon to investigate the murders, Sir Bascot de Marins, is one of the most interesting sleuths I have come across in years of reading such books. He is a Templar Knight on a kind of extended sick leave after spending eight years as a captive and slave in the Middle East and finally escaping to Cyprus. He is unsure whether he wishes to remain with the Order and his superiors show great (to me surprising) sympathy. D’Arderon, the officer in charge of the Lincoln Preceptory, has introduced him to Lady Nicolaa, and he has been given a room in the castle which he shares with a mute Sicilian street-kid he fed at some point on his travels and who has followed him like a dog ever since.

As you watch this man, wounded in body and soul, deal with these murders, with those around him, high and low, and with his own personal problems, I am sure that you, like me, will be thinking about getting hold of the second (and third!) books in the series while you are still only half-way through this one.

Unpretentious and excellent.

Advertisements




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?





OTHER GODS by Barbara Reichmuth Geisler

27 01 2017

Shaftesbury, England, 1141

other-gods-coverIt didn’t seem so terribly evil, what she was doing. The bones were, after all, only bones. She remembered how Galiena had explained it to her in that maddening, superior sort of way, as if she didn’t know anything at all. ‘My dear,’ Galiena had said, making it sound as if she was saying “you slut”, ‘he is dead. Died long ago. So this will be no harm to him. He is with God. Isn’t that what you believe?’ And the long, ovate, down-slanted eyes had glinted, reminding her of a snake. ‘And if he is with God, he can have no need for his bones.’ […]

The words echoing hollowly across her memory, she tiptoed to the shrine and, with surprising audacity, reached out and touched the box. There was no resistance. She put her hand to the latch and, with no more than a slight clicking, released it and lifted the lid. This was ridiculously easy. She peered into the gilded depths and saw the bones there, neatly arranged, not as if he had died, not as if he was in a coffin, but fumbled all together to fit. ‘Surely it is not customary to open the reliquary to see if he is in there. No one,’ – that had been Galiena’s final, convincing argument – ‘No one will look for the bones. Why would they? And therefore they will not know that they are missing.’

Another highly observant and rational nun solving mysteries in and around a medieval abbey. Surely we have enough of these series now? But Other Gods is well written, and it is different from most. For a start it is closer to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels, and intended to be so – the same date, with England suffering under the warring Matilda and Stephen, and also the place, Shaftesbury, so similar to Shrewsbury, home of Brother Cadfael – but also closer in attitude and atmosphere: Dame Averilla, the infirmaress and herbalist, faces the same kind of internal problems that Cadfael always faces, for instance a formal and uncharitable sub-prioress, and a distant, aristocratic, abbess who seems totally out of touch.

Then a valuable book disappears – and so does one of the nuns, Dame Agnes, who is believed by many of the nuns to be possessed and whom Dame Joan, the sub-prioress, insists should be exorcised, although Dame Averilla believes her to be simply ill. But when this ill, or possessed, nun disappears into the Forest, who is to find her, who is to bring he back? Under Dame Joan’s influence, the Abbess forbids Averilla to go in search of her. And Averilla of course is under a vow of obedience.

In fact Dame Agnes is found by Galiena, the local wise woman (witch, many believe) and her followers.

This Galiena, born into an aristocratic family but now come down in the world, is a fascinating character. When she was ten, her elder brother returned from the Crusades and introduced her to the art of healing as practised by the foreign healers in the Holy Land. Spurred on by this, she learnt all she could from the local wise woman. Then at the age of thirteen, and already stunningly beautiful, she was married off to a fat pig of a man older than her father, who soon took to beating her unmercifully. A few years later, “he died in dreadful agony”, poisoned by her, and she was free to go her own way and practise her arts as a wise woman herself.

Unfortunately, and perhaps because she had already used those arts to bring about more than one death, the path she chooses to follow is the path of evil.

Now only Dame Averilla can stop Galiena and save Dame Agnes, but that is being made as dificult as possible for her by her superiors in the nunnery. Why?

A first novel in what seems to have set out to be a series that would appeal to Ellis Peters fans, Other Gods is set in exactly that same time-frame and we imagine Brother Cadfael busy in in the infirmary at his monastery in Shrewsbury; we even begin to wonder whether he and Dame Averilla ever met!

There is a Book 2 (Graven Images) and a prequel (In Vain) but they were published ten years or more ago – my copy of Other Gods is a second-hand paperback I picked up by chance – and though I should like to read more I don’t think I will: the Kindle editions cost far more than I’m usually prepared to pay even for a new paperback. Another unlucky author with a couldn’t-care-less publisher.





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 WAXMAN MURDERS by Paul Doherty

4 05 2016

A mystery featuring medieval sleuth Hugh Corbett

Canterbury and East Anglia, 1272, 1300, 1303

Waxman MurdersIn 1272, King Henry III had died. His son Edward was on Crusade in Outremer (the Holy Land) at the time, and, in the absence of a king, law and order broke down. Rifflers pillaged isolated homes and farms. Among those attacked was the Blackstock’s manor house outside Canterbury.

The Blackstocks had two sons. The older boy, Hubert, was at school in Canterbury, but the younger son, Adam, watched his own mother being raped and murdered, then saw his father killed and his home burnt down.

By the year 1300, Adam had become a North Sea pirate with his own ship, the Waxman, and Hugh, who had pursued his studies and become a monk, had abandoned the cloister and disappeared from sight – though all men feared him as much as they did his brother.

A map purporting to show where a great treasure was buried in Suffolk had fallen into Adam’s hands. He was sailing to the Orwell estuary to deliver it to his brother when he was intercepted by two ships and killed in the ensuing battle. The map disappeared.

Now, three years later, a series of murders have been committed in Canterbury.

Sir Hugh Corbett, sent by king Edward (whose main interest is the map and the treasure) to investigate, finds that the beautiful lady Adelicia has been accused of one of the murders – the victim was her detested and miserly husband – but  he has reason to believe that they are all in fact connected, and may be the work of Hugh, Adam Blackstead’s mysterious elder brother.

Then Hugh himself receives a threatening note – from someone who seems to be able to kill with impunity, anywhere, any time.

As I have said before, and will no doubt say again, Paul Doherty is the maestro when it comes to Medieval Mysteries, and this is another one not to be missed.





THE TOLLS OF DEATH by Michael Jecks

4 05 2016

Cornwall, England, 1323

Tolls of DeathThis is one of the earliest – and best – of Michael Jecks’ Templar Knights series. One not to be missed if, like me, you are a lapper-up of Medieval Mysteries.

The Prologue to this story opens:

There were two happy men that day in Cardinham in the summer of 1323, and one who was fearful.

Serlo the miller had every right to be concerned. Although he feared ruin, he was about to be murdered, for reasons he could not begin to comprehend, and at the hands of one whom he would never have suspected.

I like that: He was about to be murdered. You find yourself waiting for it, you are drawn in at once and don’t have a long, long wait for anything to happen as in so many Michael Jecks books.

The two happy men that day in the summer of 1323 are of course Siman Puttock and Sir Baldwin Furnshill. They are happy because they have arrived back in England after their pilgrimage to Compostela in the north of Spain (read The Templar’s Penance) and now have only to make their way from Cornwall into Devon and be home, at last.

But while they are in Cardinham a woman named Athelina is found hanged and her two sons dead with her in their cottage. Suicide. An act of desperation. In despair, she killed her children then took her own life.

Baldwin, predictably, does not agree. And the who-cares attitude of the brainless young coroner only increases his determination to bring the killer of the poor woman and the two boys to book.

There are the usual array of memorable characters Jecks creates each time he writes a book just for that one book. For instance, here you have the miller, Serlo – the one who is to be murdered – and his protective elder bother, the bailiff, Alexander, who will be desperate to avenge him. You have Richard atte Brooke, who returns to the village after fifteen years’ absence, having left when his family all died in a fire. It seems that he hates Serlo, blames him, indirectly, for the death of his family. Will he be Serlo’s murderer? But how does he fit into the three deaths we already have? It turns out that he is in love with, has always been in love with, poor Athelina.

And then there is Anne, the exquisitely beautiful Lady Anne, a starving orphan who became a prostitute and finally won the heart of Nicholas, the castellan, commander of the local garrison. He knows nothing of what she did as a child in order to survive, only that he adores her and that she is now pregnant; but is the baby his?

All this, and much more, takes place against the historical background of Mortimer’s escape from the Tower. At this juncture no one knows whether he is still in England or has managed to get away to Ireland or France, but many sympathise with him and hate the grasping Despensers and despise the rather pathetic King Edward II whom the Despensers seem to lead by the nose. Will he flee to the south west and turn up in Cornwall? And what will they do if he does? One of the great things about this series is the way it arouses your interest in the history of the period. You close the novel and rush to the history book.

Read it, even if you have already read later ones in the series. The knowledge of what comes later won’t spoil it, and reading it will fill in gaps in the on-going background story.