In my final contribution to the Tuesday Night Bloggers Mystery and History month, I thought I’d take the opportunity to sing the praises of one of the masters of the genre. An author whose every book sheds new light on the dim and distant past and captivates the reader from page one. And no, for once, I’m not talking about Paul Doherty…
Michael Jecks is an author who I first came across… well, I’m not sure when. It’s odd how the memory cheats, but I think it was about ten years ago. That’s based solely on which library I remember borrowing the books from, but the more I think about it, the more sure I am that I read some of his books before then. Whenever it was, I did make a dreadful mistake early on – one that I’ve thankfully rectified since, but more on that later.
Michael’s main historical series, which is what I’m going to concentrate on here, is set primarily in Devon in the early fourteenth century. Edward II is on the throne, but for a large number of books in the series, this is almost completely irrelevant. Because this is one of the few historical series that doesn’t feel the need to drop historical celebrities such as the King into the proceedings.
Instead, what we get is a view of a certain aspect of medieval life, an aspect that could only be written about in a tale concerning the past.
Book One, The Last Templar, introduces the lead character, the direct Bailiff Simon Puttock and Sir Baldwin Furnshill, a newly-returned lord of the manor who has, in fact, fled the persecution of the Templar Order by Philip IV of France (basically he wanted their resources for himself). By Book Two, The Merchant’s Partner, Baldwin finds himself Keeper Of The King’s Peace and is the first port of call to sort out any murderous misdemeanours alongside Simon.
But the range of those crimes, in particular the people that they involve, are where the books shine. The Merchant’s Partner tells of life in a moorland village in the dead of winter, A Moorland Hanging tells of the life of a tin miner, The Crediton Killings tells of life as a member of a band of mercenaries, The Abbot’s Gibbet gives a picture of what happens when a medieval fair is held in Tavistock… I could go on, but there’s another difference here that is also worth pointing out.
Michael makes a point of getting inside the heads of all of the characters in the tale. To refer back to Paul Doherty for a moment, he tends to concentrate on his sleuths and his murder victims in their final minutes, but with Michael, we get an insight into events, both murderous and otherwise, from the point of view of everyone, from the lord of the manor to the beggar in the street. This is no mean feat, especially as by adopting this approach, the murderer’s thoughts have to be given as well, which can be a tricky thing to do without giving the game away. I can think of a single occasion where I think it didn’t work for me, but as I’m now twenty-three books into the thirty-two book series, that’s a pretty impressive showing.
And it’s worth pointing out that every single one of these books is also a complex murder mystery tale. The mistake that I mentioned earlier was that when I read The Tournament of Blood – about the fourth book that I read once upon a time – I gave up on it quite early thinking that it wasn’t a mystery. I’m glad that I returned to the series as this was a book that I immensely enjoyed the second time round and I felt bad that I’d underestimated Michael. The plots in general are both complex in their reach and yet straightforward to follow and there generally are clues to be followed. Squire Throwleigh’s Heir has a beautifully subtle clue which I did spot but I felt very clever about doing so.
So where should the reader start? It’s not essential to read the series in order, although charting the evolution of Simon and Baldwin’s lives and careers is a fascinating experience – but here’s my provisional top five, in no particular order.
When suspicion for a murder falls upon the occupants of a nearby leper hospital, Baldwin and Simon need to find a murderer and stop a tragedy from occurring.
The five year old heir to the late Squire Throwleigh has an unnatural number of enemies and when he dies, apparently in an accident, Baldwin and Simon find themselves facing their most difficult case.
Vampires! The village of Sticklepath has been cursed by many murders over the year, but when things escalate, our heroes find themselves chasing deadly phantoms and a ruthless killer.
The parish priest of Gidleigh has been charged with the murder of his lover and Simon and Baldwin are charged with bringing him to justice. By the time they arrive, he has escaped, but they have doubts to his guilt. But tragedy is on the horizon…
A much lighter book, despite a piratical massacre and a French spy on the loose in the town. Simon and Baldwin are joined by a new coroner to help deal with a complex clever mystery. Justly nominated for the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Book Of The Year.
So why not go and pick up something from this series? You won’t be disappointed.
Ah, I see that Theakston’s Old Peculiar is an ale! I guess they don’t sell that in the states. For a moment, I thought Theakston’s must be a bookstore and “old peculiar” modified “book”. That would certainly be a “peculiar” award, if not an old one. Perhaps they sell the ale under a different name here, since “peculiar” is not exactly a compliment in American English.
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Your post reminds me that it’s time to pick up something else by Michael Jecks. A pity that my local Kindle store charges a fair bit for his novels, and my local library stocks titles you haven’t reviewed (2007-09). I’ve read ‘Squire Throwleigh’s Heir’ and enjoyed it; ‘Leper’s Return’ and ‘Sticklepath Strangler’ have caught my eye, but they appear slightly too gruesome for my taste.
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I can assure you JFW that Leper and Sticklepath are no more gruesome than Throwleigh! That was one of the most gory, from memory. Just one point – it takes a major amount of time to write these books, and my only income is from the tiny percentage I get from sales. Don’t begrudge the author trying to make a few pennies (and it is pennies) from each sale!
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I’d agree – gory isn’t the word. Leper is a very sensitively told tale about the treatment (medically and otherwise) of leprosy. And Sticklepath is all about the atmosphere of darkness…
Oh, and as for the later books, I think I’m on safe ground to say that you don’t need to wait for the review…
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Delighted to read this. You are quite right. Mike is one of our finest historical mystery writers.
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In the beginning of the series, Sticklepath was my favorite book, I love a good vampire story. But as the series continued, I thought , no this one is my favorite. It’s very hard to pick when you enjoy them all. And with the holidays coming it time for me to shop for more books. It’s time to pick up a few more of MJ’s books and maybe a couple of other authors too.
I couldn’t get your system to accept my first comment so I rebooted and tried again…
Because as a first commenter, it needs to be approved. Should be OK now
I requested my library (Toronto) to add The Leper’s Return. They had only 3 of your ebooks.
I love everyone of Michael’s books.As you mention, a new coroner friend pops up every now and then,and he is such a character, with his jokes that he makes Simon and Baldwin suffer.
He reminds me of John Cranston from Paul Doherty’s Brother Athelstan mysteries – he’s a coroner too!