Today’s read sees me taking another foray into the world of historical mystery fiction and this title in particular was recommended by the Puzzle Doctor, who is somewhat of a fan of Michael Jecks’ work. I am jumping into Jecks’ Knight Templar series with this book coming 12th in the order. Thankfully though it seems like the sort of series you can do this with and not be left feeling confused.
The action of today’s review takes place in 14th century Sticklepath, a real life village near to Dartmoor and it was enjoyable to read the author’s note before beginning the story proper, as I felt I had a good sense of what Medieval Sticklepath might have been like. Whilst this could be described as a village based murder mystery, the village in question is no St Mary Mead. Life in the village certainly feels more ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’, so it was interesting to read about the types of contemporary sources Jecks used to depict the culture and mind sets of the time.
The tale begins with a preface set in 1315, a time of severe famine and a man is hunted down and burnt in his own home, accused of not just killing a child, but also of eating parts of her. This is no instant revelation, but unfolds gradually, the horror for the man rapidly increasing as he realises what is happening. The story then jumps ahead to 1322 and it seems in the interim that more deaths of a similar nature have occurred. It is the discovery of a small skeleton near the village which brings our series sleuths, Sir Baldwin Furnsill (Keeper of the King’s Peace), Sir Roger de Gidleigh (Coroner) and Simon Puttock (Baliff) on to the scene. Their arrival is far from welcoming, as their investigation is liable to bring many more secrets than the truth behind the skeleton into the open and as the growing hysteria and tension mount, it remains to be seen whether justice and truth will be upheld or whether mob rule will win the day, as the body count rapidly increases.
Medieval England is definitely a setting that took me a little while to get used to. Unsurprisingly after reading this book I was very thankful I didn’t live during that time period. Yet its brutality and harshness didn’t prevent me from getting emotionally engaged in the story. There were definitely characters I immediately warmed to such as the two young girls who uncover the skeleton at the beginning of the book. Equally I found Sir Furnsill an effective series lead, being a man troubled by memories of violence and death. He doesn’t have anachronistic modern thinking, but he still has a healthy cynicism for superstitions. His newly married status also brings some much needed lighter hearted moments into this dark story, as does Puttock whose reluctant attitude towards sleuthing adds more comical elements.
The increasingly turbulent atmosphere of the book is definitely one of its strengths, as the inhabitants of Sticklepath are torn between finding the bona fide killer and ending the whole ordeal by finding a scapegoat, i.e. somebody who wasn’t born there. Of course there are characters who also want to profit from this situation. The hostile attitude towards Furnshill and his cohorts from the villagers is interesting. It is not just about them worming out their secrets, but there is a real sense of anxiety over the punishments which might be levelled against them. Until reading this book I didn’t realise that when a community found a dead body that they then had to pay a fine once they reported it, so you can’t really blame such characters for trying to conceal information and more from officials. There definitely doesn’t seem to be any positive reinforcement for helping out the law. Equally there are other officials too which come around eager to take meagre resources from the peasants all in the name of the king. It is details which like this that don’t just add to the setting and background of the mystery, but actually effect how certain crimes come about and how suspects respond to official scrutiny.
A final thought on the mystery element of the story, is that I think Jecks is good at giving you a wide set of suspects to choose from, adding a strong dose of misdirection so you don’t probably even consider the true perpetrator. So whilst I might not be packing my bags and jumping into a time machine to visit Sticklepath, (I’ve heard the Air B’n’B there is dire), I may well be borrowing another Jecks novel from my sister, who fortunately seems to have quite a lot of the series.