Morality Play (1995) by Barry Unsworth

In late fourteenth century England, a young priest, Nicholas Barber, is fleeing from his calling. His sins mean that he cannot return to the church, so instead he compounds those sins by joining a group of travelling players, replacing a member of the group who has recently joined. But as he comes to be accepted within the group, trouble is brewing, both for the group and for Nicholas individually.

Stopping at a small town, they have trouble raising a crowd for the normal performances of Biblical morality plays, they strike on a new idea – a play entitled The Play Of Thomas Wells, based on the very recent murder of a young boy. The murderer has been caught, it should be a simple play to perform. But it seems that the truth is not, as yet, known about what happened to the boy – and perhaps the play’s the thing to bring it to light…

Well, this is an odd choice. Barry Unsworth won the Booker Prize for the novel preceding this one – not a mystery novel – and that sounds far too intellectual for someone like me. But this one was recommended to me by JJ from The Invisible Event (and author of the fantastic The Red Death Murders), saying that I’d really like it. Taking his recommendation on board (helped by the ebook only being a couple of quid) I thought I’d take a look.

I’d be hard-pushed to say that I enjoyed the book. It’s not the sort of book to really enjoy, but it’s certainly impressive. I certainly admired the book, both in its characterisation, world-building and pacing of the plot, and I was engrossed from start to finish, with Nicholas’ tale, and, to a lesser extent those of the other players.  Similarly as more players enter the drama, and the truth edges closer to being revealed, it’s a very satisfying revelation. There are plenty of plot developments – I’d hesitate to call them twists as that’s probably overstating it – and the story keeps moving forwards.

The most impressive thing is the medieval world that Barry Unsworth conjures up here. Everyone seems to have a completely medieval mentality, with no nods to modern day morals. While the same is true of, say, Paul Doherty and Michael Jecks, I don’t think they go quite as far into it as this book. It’s a book that, at times, I needed to concentrate on while reading it – I have been told this is not a bad thing, by the way – but it’s definitely worth your time, especially if you like historical mysteries.

One comment

  1. Glad you enjoyed this overall; we’re a long way from the likes of Paul Doherty, but there’s something compelling about the structure of this, and the way the central mystery develops, that I really loved. Not a traditional mystery by any means, but one that holds a lot of interest for anyone wishing to explore the breadth of the genre a little more.

    Liked by 1 person

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