The Moorland Murderers (2021) by Michael Jecks

Jack Blackjack, master assassin (despite never having actually killed anyone) was concerned about Queen Mary’s latest persecutions in London, so he did what he did best – namely run away. France seems to be his best bet, but he decides that his best bet it to go via Devon. After all, the danger is in London and the south east of England, so Devon must be a safe bet…

Stopping the night in a tavern, Jack manages to upset the leader of the local miners by taking all his money (and his horse) over a game of dice. The next morning, the man is dead, and the local populace have a very convenient suspect at hand. Jack’s usual plan kicks in – running – but the area consists of factions – villagers, outlaws and miners – each with their own brand of justice, some of which don’t need the slightest bit of evidence to enact…

This is the seventh Jack Blackjack mystery, and for the first time, Jack is completely on his own, visiting Devon, the author’s own stomping ground, and visiting territory touched upon in his earlier book (in the Knights Templar series) A Moorland Hanging, although they are very different books. As the Jack Blackjack books are told in the first person, there isn’t as much background as in the other book, but there is certainly enough for the reader to understand what is going on – namely that the miners have their own system of laws (legally) and in their territory, what they say, goes.

I mentioned last time that the Jack Blackjack stories are a curious mixture of historical thriller and farce, as Jack escapes from one peril into another, worse, one as the book goes on, until everything is resolved at the end. That is doing the book a disservice, as it makes it sound like some sort of routine, whereas it is far from that, but readers expecting a standard mystery should be warned – the blurb says that “Jack realizes that the only way to clear his name – and save his skin – is to unmask the real killer.” I suppose that’s true, but for ninety per cent of the book, Jack is only trying to get away. It’s only when he gets into a position where he can’t run – literally – that this strategy is adopted. And luckily, there’s a smarter person that Jack in the room who can spot the real killer…

So it’s not a typically structured whodunit, but that’s fine. I wasn’t expecting one. What I was expecting was an enthralling, engrossing adventure with characters who leap off the page, a  good line of wit in the narration and a mystery to keep the reader guessing. And that’s exactly what I got. I suppose the stand-out mark of quality here is there is a central tragedy being played out, tangential to the mystery plot, and I really felt for the characters involved. They should all be very unpleasant characters, given what they do, but nonetheless…

Michael has a real gift for pulling the reader into his world and never lets me down with his work. This is no exception.

The Moorland Murderers is out from Severn House now – check your local library, as it’s a bit pricey to get your own copy for now.

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