1353, Oxford, and bookseller Nicholas Eylot is doing a thriving business amongst the academics in the city. One day, however, he discovers the body of a student, William Farringdon, floating face down in the River Cherwell. Accident or suicide seem to be the obvious causes, but when looking at the body, Eylot notices a subtle sign of murder – namely a knife wound in his back.
Nicholas and his friend, academic Jordain Brinkylsworth, are determined to find out what happened to the student, especially when copies of pages of a priceless psalter are found in the student’s room. All signs point to the place where the original of the psalter is kept, a location where no one is allowed to access to the priceless book. A den of iniquity known only as Merton College…
Well, that’s one hell of a coincidence. I pick a random recommendation from Amazon, and I find that it’s set in my old stomping ground, Merton College, a place that I called home for nine years, off and on. Admittedly, it’s a tad before my time by a few hundred years, but even so. Even more so as I’m heading to Oxford to meet some friends from those good old days. What a strange world this is.
Anyway, the book, which is apparently the number one best seller in “Christian Church History”, despite the fact this has very little to do with that. Ann Swinfen wrote many books in her lifetime, but her primary crime series was a run of six books set in medieval Oxford of which this is the first.
The historical element is extremely well done. The detail is fascinating, lacking the darkness of Paul Doherty’s London while not shying away from darker areas of post-Black Death Oxford. Eylot is an interesting lead, and the details of his trade as a bookseller and bookbinder are fascinating.
The mystery builds nicely, but fans of the classic puzzle will be disappointed when the villain reveals themselves by, almost literally, signing their name to the crime. And it was pretty obvious before then too.
Overall, an interesting and engrossing read, and I’ll certainly take a look at the next one in the series. Hopefully the mystery will have more of a sting in the tale next time.
I remember reading this a while ago and having pretty much exactly the same response. I enjoyed it a lot for the historical setting but the mystery elements are as slight as you suggest. Still, I have fond memories of the experience of reading it and I keep meaning to try some of those later installments. I will be interested to see what you make of any of the others should you go back to them!
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