In 1100 AD, Jerusalem, a holy relic, namely a piece of Christ’s cross stained with his blood is discovered. However the relic carries a curse – anyone who touches the splinter will die once the relic leaves their possession. We follow the relic, and the mayhem it generates, through the years, to Oxford, Cambridge and Devon (twice) before the tale concludes in London, with five tales, plus prologue and epilogue from the Medieval Murderers – namely Susanna Gregory, Philip Gooden, Ian Morson, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight and Simon Beaufort (aka Susanna Gregory again).
What better way to kick off my Medieval Miscreants meme of reviews that with six authors for the price of one – well, five really – well, four really… I’ll explain later. But Gregory, Morson, Jecks and Knight all have a number of books under their belts set in the Medieval world and so this seemed the perfect start.
But if you have a long memory, I didn’t really get on with Bernard Knight ’s Crowner John books in the past and the less said about what I said on Susanna Gregory’s A Plague On Both Your Houses, the better. So, have I managed to sour myself on this thread before I’ve even started it?
Well, let’s take the stories in order:
Prologue – Jerusalem, 1100 AD, Simon Beaufort (aka Susanna Gregory)
Basically, that’s it – a scene setter that establishes the curse and kills off a couple of people to show that it might actually be real. Sir Geoffrey Mappestone sends the relic on its way with a dire warning attached to it.
Act One – Devonshire, 1194 AD, Bernard Knight
The relic arrives on English shores for safekeeping but its theft leads to serious problems for Crowner John, not least the arrest of his mistress Nesta.
A perfectly fine story but, as I’ve found previously with this series, not so much a mystery as a medieval crime story. Well-written, but ultimately, I’m still not convinced about this series. Anyone want to recommend their favourite in this series for me to give it a go?
Act Two – Oxford, 1269 AD, Ian Morson
Death abounds at Oseney Abbey and William Falconer, Regent Master of the University and Peter Bullock, town constable investigate, only to be stalked by a sinister stranger.
A proper mystery, albeit suffering from the usual short story issues of a small number of suspects, this is enjoyable with a couple of decent red herrings. No real clues in sight, but again, that can be a problem with short stories. I’ll be returning to this series with Falconer’s Crusade in the near future, and, on the strength of this, I’m very much looking forward to it.
Act Three – Devonshire, 1323 AD, Michael Jecks
The relic returns to Devonshire but is again stolen by thieves. Baldwin and Puttock investigate a series of deaths in the town while seeking to retrieve the deadly relic.
Another proper mystery with a couple of nice surprises. It also ties in more directly with the previous tale – the final keeper of the relic in Act Two is revealed to be an acquaintance of Baldwin from his Templar days, helping to tie the tales together. Again, clues are thin on the ground, but it’s not that sort of mystery. I’m starting to really enjoy Michael Jecks’ work and you can expect to see a review of A Moorland Hanging soon. If you want a taster for yourself, then there’s an ebook collection of his short stories from this series, called For The Love Of Old Bones. There’ll be a review of that too at some point.
Act Four – Cambridge, 1353, Susanna Gregory
The keeper of the relic from Act Three is taking it to Norwich via Cambridge, but death soon follows and the relic vanishes. Can Matthew Bartholomew get to the bottom of the increasing number of deaths?
Much to my pleasant surprise, the best of the lot of the stories – partly due to the quality of the mystery, with some genuine surprises right up until the end, but also some fascinating stuff concerning the religious in-fighting over the validity of so-called “blood relics”. Very much looking forward to returning to this series now, something I wouldn’t have been before reading this.
Act Five – London, 16??, Philip Gooden
Actor Nick Revill is charged by William Shakespeare to find a missing manuscript so that it can be destroyed. But some crossed wires lead to the discovery of another relic (guess which one) and the murder of the man possessing it…
Right – Medieval Murderers and King James I. No, nor me. But that’s not the only issue with this story. It’s written in the first person, unlike the rest of the book, which makes it seem like a different story entirely rather than part of the whole, and the huge leap of 300ish years doesn’t help.
And apart from the ill-fittingness of this tale, the over-talkative raven and the resolution to the mystery were both a bit fanciful for my tastes. The earlier stories, despite cursed relics, were grounded in reality, whereas this one… the tone was too different.
So overall, Acts 2,3 and 4 were extremely good, with Act 4 taking it by a nose. Act 1 was fine, but I’m rather glad that I won’t be revisiting Jacobean London for a while. But then again, I said that about 1350s Cambridge and am now actively looking forward to going back there…
Overall, a good collection of stories and an excellent taster for some talented authors. Highly recommended.