It turns out that he had just inherited Furnshill Manor in Devon, on the death of his brother, a place to which he returned after 26 years away, during which time he had fought in the Holy Land and become a Templar. But in 1314 the Templars had been closed down on trumped-up charges and declared to be heretics, and Sir Baldwin had had to watch the old and tired-out leader of his order and numerous friends die at the stake in Paris. Having "turned his back on the religious life of a monk", he had returned to England, hoping to forget the past and settle down to find a wife and have a family. He "had friends within the church .... but for Baldwin, a knight who had taken the three-fold vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, a system that was led by the Pope, a man who had cynically discarded the Templars purely for his own profit, was itself corrupt." He "was deeply religious, although he detested the Pope and eyed the Church askance".
He "always wanted to find the truth in any situation" so proves to be an observant and determined detective, once he has overcome his initial "misery and depression" although "he was reserved and cautious with strangers and found it hard to trust people". He is also, it turns out in the first book, a murderer but no-one seems to worry about this. And it is as a murder suspect that we first meet him. But he soon becomes the Keeper of the King's Peace for Crediton and helps bailiff Simon Puttock deal with what seem a remarkable number of local murders. He remains abstemious in his habits for, as he tells Simon, "I don't like too much alcohol". He is "astute, swift to spot problems with evidence, an acute questioner, and a good companion."
Michael Jecks (1960 - ) was born in Surrey. He trained as an actuary but then became a computer salesman. After 13 years, finding himself unemployed, he made use of his fascination with medieval history to write his first novel, The Last Templar. This was followed by numerous other Medieval West Country Mysteries. He went on to found The Medieval Murderers, a group of writers producing linked novellas. He says that he loves writing, as "It is the only career for which I have been paid to daydream". He lives in a small village in north Dartmoor with his wife, two children and his dog, and is often to be seen researching his novels in the landscape in which they are set.
All the books are listed below, together with reviews of a selection of them:
The Last Templar (1995)
The Last Templar is set in Devon in 1314. The newly appointed bailiff of Lydford Castle, Simon Puttock, is called to a village where a charred body has been found in a burned-out cottage. Unaccustomed to violence in this peaceful area, Simon assumes it is accidental death, but Sir Baldwin Furnshill, recently returned from abroad, quickly convinces him that the victim had been killing before the fire began. As Simon and the astute yet strangely reticent knight piece together the evidence, word comes of another murder, more horrible by far, for in this case the victim was undoubtedly roasted alive. Are the two incidents connected - and will the killers strike again?
It makes quite an interesting and easy-to-read story, although it sometimes seems to move along at too leisurely a pace, and can sound a little corny, as when we are told that Baldwyn's eyes were "small glinting sparks under his lowered brows" and that Baldwin was " frowning in the manner that Simon was beginning to recognise as demonstrating intense concentration". Another character had eyes that "were slitted as he trudged on among the trees trying to keep the driven rain from them, but they still glittered with cold rage". But there are vivid descriptions of burning wagons and dead bodies at an attacked camp, and towards the end there is a really exciting pursuit and battle scene.
The emphasis in this story is very much on Simon, as we see most of the events through his eyes. Eventually he becomes sure "that somehow Baldwin was involved in the Abbot's murder," and has to decide what to do about it. It takes two whole (and over-lengthy) chapters for Baldwin to explain himself. It is only in later books that Baldwin becomes Simon's real partner, and plays a major part in their investigations.
The Merchant's Partner (1995)
The Merchant's Partner is set a year after the previous book. It describes the discovery of Agatha Kyteler's frozen and mutilated body one wintry morning. She was a midwife and healer who had long been regarded as a witch by the superstitious villagers of Wefford. A local youth runs away and a hue and cry is raised. Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the King's Peace, is not convinced of the youth's guilt and soon manages to persuade his close friend Simon Puttock, bailiff of Lydford Castle, to help him continue with the investigation. As they endeavour to find the true culprit, another corpse turns up and the darker side of the village soon emerges. And what was the young foreigner, John, Bourc de Beaumont, the bastard son of a nobleman, doing there?
This makes another chatty, quite appealing story, full of human interest and in which plenty happens, even if the reader's interest sags from time to time. Some of the lengthy conversation pieces seem rather over-extended but others are quite lively as when Baldwin gently asks a friend, the local rector, who is out falconing with him in the freezing weather, "Are you cold?"
"Cold?" Peter Clifford's face appeared almost blue in the chill of the early morning as he squinted at his companion. "How could I feel cold in this glorious weather? I may not be a knight, I may be used to sitting in the warm with a fire blazing at this time of year, I may be thin and older than you, and I may be sorely in need of a pint of mulled beer, but that does not mean I feel the bitterness of this wind that cuts through my tunic like a battleaxe through butter."
Later on Baldwin asks Simon how he's getting on at Lydford.
"Lydford is cold, Baldwin."
"Cold?" Margaret (Simon's wife) broke in. "It's freezing! It's at one side of the gorge, and the wind howls up the valley like the Devil's hounds on the scent of a lost soul."
"It sounds lovely the way you describe it," said Baldwin gravely. "I look forward to visiting you both there."
This is all a real improvement on the previous book although the author overdoes the old device of ending a chapter at an exciting moment then cutting away to another scene altogether. When used too often, this can get distinctly tiresome, as when we jump from wolves about to attack the Bourc to Simon and Baldwin sitting at their fireside watching the snow, then back to the Bourc trying to fight off the wolves before jumping back to Simon and Baldwin. It all seems too contrived.
The author is strong on local colour, whether it is a vivid description of snow on Dartmoor, or just the smell of vomit. Sir Baldwin proves to be a determined pursuer of the truth, although, oddly enough, we are told that "the lines on his face, the scars and weals of suffering, had almost all gone, to be replaced by a calm acceptance of life". However, unfortunately he goes on to fall in love with a highly unsuitable young woman (you know she is a baddie because, when she learnt of the death of her husband, Simon notices that "in her eyes there was no sadness. Glittering in the depths of the emerald pools was a cruel, vicious joy"). You know Baldwin is in love because he has "a small far-off smile". But, by the end of the book, he was suddenly looking older again, "his face sagging as if through old age, his features seeming to become grey and ancient." Little did he realise that he would still have more than thirty cases to solve.
A Moorland Hanging (1996)
The Crediton Killings (1997)
The Abbot's Gibbet (1998)
The Abbot's Gibbet is set in 1319.Tavistock's fair is drawing merchants to Devon from all over England and beyond. Keeping the streets clean and the locals in order is no easy task, for the influx of visitors and their money puts temptation in the way of cut-purses and other villains. But no one expects a murder, and butcher Will Ruby is stunned to discover a corpse - and a headless one at that.
Former Knight Templar Sir Baldwin Furnshill, still Keeper of the King's Peace, and his friend Simon Puttock, Bailiff of Lydford, have just arrived in Tavistock as guests of Abbot Robert Champeaux when the body is found. When the Abbot asks Simon and Baldwin to investigate, they can hardly refuse. But with an unidentifiable victim, they are badly hampered in their enquiries. Meanwhile Sir Baldwin meets up with the beautiful widow Jeanne, but she seems in no hurry to accept him. After all, his search for a wife provides one of the continuing threads that is needed to keep the plots going.
Although there are some exciting episodes, as when Baldwin and Simon ride with a pack of hounds in close pursuit of two suspects, or when an angry crowd turns on bullying watchman, there are also too many extended interviews and too much unnecessary talk, and we do not seem to get any closer to an understanding of, or the development of real sympathy with, the strangely enigmatic Baldwin. It is difficult to feel involved in all the intricacies of the story.
Baldwin himself seems to have lost "the comfort of belief. He could never again trust in God's justice." Although he has his talents, such as his ability to examine a dead body and determine the probable cause of death, he seems less real than the down-to-earth Simon. His weight, we are told, "was Baldwin's main enemy now". But Simon's wife Margaret is "sad that he was still a bachelor" and sets off, with the young widow Jeanne, to search the fair to find him material for a new tunic - a nice touch.
There are the usual interesting glimpses into life at the time, such as the description of the fair, and the way that, following a public hanging, "The executioners leaped up to clasp the bodies, clinging to them until the victim had died .... The hangmen were speeding the death: it was no more than Christian kindness to halt suffering." A burgess, much to Baldwin's disgust, had complained about this because he had been "heavily involved in the gambling that revolved around hangings, with bets being laid on how long each man would live. He preferred to see them last longer so more bets could be taken."
The author makes no attempt to capture the language of the time and characters say things like, "I was clobbered, sir. Someone belted me from behind." And some of his descriptions lack conviction, as when we're told that Baldwin thought "of the mindless cruelty he had observed in the ruthless dark eyes of the last man to go out", or when we are told that "Baldwin had been prone to darkly introspective moods, and today Edgar was at first anxious that his master had succumbed again. But then he caught sight of the knight's eye and saw the gleam. This was no black despair. Baldwin was simply focusing his entire being on the problem of the murders."
There is a large, and sometimes rather confusing, cast of characters, ranging from the powerful bishop to two supposedly wealthy Venetians: a father, who is very keen to do a business deal with the powerful bishop, and his son who falls in love with a local merchant's daughter who needs little persuasion to elope with him. Like the melodramatic climax, when a knife is held at Baldwin's throat, it is all just a little less interesting than the author must have hoped.
The Lepers Return (1998)
The Leper's Return Is set in 1320 when civil war is looming as Ralph of Houndeslow rides into Crediton. Ralph faces a daunting task as Master of St Lawrence's, the leper hospital. Not only are his charges grievously ill, they are also outcasts of society, shunned by all healthy folk, many of whom believe that leprosy is caused by the victim's own sexual depravity.
Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the King's Peace, is now in his mid-forties (despite the fact that it is "about seven years" since he had come home, aged 43!). He has other concerns: the gold merchant Godfrey of London has been murdered and his daughter Cicely assaulted, both crimes being attributed to the conman and womaniser, the incorrigible John of Irlaunde.But Sir Baldwin is not convinced that John is the culprit and soon he is following other leads, assisted by Bailiff Simon Puttock. But it is only when they discover the identity of the man overheard talking to Cicely before the attack does the truth begin to emerge. Meanwhile feeling against the lepers is growing, fed by deliberately-spread rumours. Baldwin and Simon have to act fast to prevent full-scale slaughter.
Baldwin, by carefully examining the wounds of the murder victim, had been able to establish just how he died, and it is he who now takes the lead in investigations. And when he meets up again with the beautiful young widow Jeanne de Liddinstone, romance looks about to bloom again.
The only fly in the ointment is Jeanne's aggressively bossy maid Emma, who is determined to keep suitors like Baldwin away. "She's a bear," Baldwin tells Simon, "a ravening, insane beast!" He realises that "with a fearsome guard like Emma, he would find it very hard to get Jeanne on her own." But the author has some fun describing not only Emma's outrageous behaviour but her appearance as well: "Her chest was carried like some kind of armoured buttress - or maybe like the curtain wall of a castle, Baldwin amended, recalling the awesome immensity of her bosom. An army, he felt, could batter itself to death against such a vast obstacle."
The two characters, Ralph and John, are both of interest and as the story progresses we come to understand and respect them . The problems of the lepers are realistically brought to life, and you really feel for characters like Thomas Rodde who had been a leper for six years, and for the saintly young Mary who helps at the leper house to be near the young leper to whom she had previously been engaged. And the murderously aggressive local smith Jack is another force to be reckoned with.
Yet, despite its entertaining moments, the plot is not really strong enough to hold the interest throughout, and there is too much talking: as Baldwin tells Simon, "I feel that the more people I speak to, the more confusing it becomes." And the final pages of tedious explanations do not make easy reading.
Squire Throwleigh's Heir (1998)
Squire Throwleigh's Heir is set in late spring, 1321, as Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the King's Peace, prepares for his wedding to the young widow Jeanne. Then he receives the news that one of his guests, Roger, Squire of Throwleigh, has just died. The new master of Throwleigh is little Herbert, five years old and isolated in his grief, for his distraught mother Katherine unfairly blames him for her husband's death. Baldwin gets very worried about the new heir's apparent lack of protection, for, having inherited a large estate and much wealth, the five year old may have made some dangerous enemies, including the dead man's greedy younger brother, Thomas of Exeter. Then there was the sinister effeminate priest who had seemed to enjoy beating Herbert and other boys. When Herbert is fatally hit by a horse and cart just a few days later, seemingly by accident, Baldwin and his friend, Bailiff Simon Puttock, soon suspect foul play. As they begin to investigate the facts they become increasingly convinced that Herbert was murdered.
In an interesting author's note at the start, Jenks discusses the sort of vocabulary that should be used in historical novels. If you used the real language of the time the result would be utterly comprehensible to most of us. "Many writers try to get around this problem by giving a spurious patina of authenticity to their work. They throw in the odd 'Gadzooks' in the hope that it will roll the reader into believing that they have researched their subject carefully. Reader, beware! 'Gadzooks', for example, was first recorded in the late 1660s, so would be completely out of place in one of my novels" so "I have deliberately chosen to write my stories in the language of today." However, "If one writes in the language of today, one may be tempted to use words that couldn't have been in common parlance in the historical period in question.... Writing an historical novel is therefore fraught with dangers; one faces upsetting some folk by using archaic, incomprehensible terms, and alienating others by employing words which are simply too contemporary. All I can do is plead the best of intentions and try to steer a middle road in the hope that people will enjoy my lively mediaeval mysteries that spring from my own overheated imagination!" And, as far as language is concerned he usually succeeds in doing this, even if sentences like "Oh, God's teeth, what a mess!" and "God's bowels, no! He's too weak and brainless to think of something of that nature" seem a rather disconcerting mixture of old and new.
The story itself tends to lose pace in the middle, but it is one of the author's more interesting ones and is helped along by a preliminary cast list which proves very necessary. As always, it is well researched and all sorts of intriguing incidental bits of information emerge such as how "A man's will divided his possessions into three, after paying off debts. One third, the dower, would go to his wife; a second third would go to good causes so that his soul would be well received; only the last of the three parts would go to his heir. In cases where the heir was too young to look after himself, his mother would remain at home and act as guardian, but normally she would leave as soon as her son was old enough to fend for herself, retiring to a convent, or taking the vows and living as a recluse in a small property and not interfering in her son's life, giving him her dowry to protect the estate, and living on what ever portion her son chose to send to her."
The descriptions of the period, including such incidents as the crude stitching of a wound, ring all too true, although the ending, when the truth is revealed and a whole mansion goes up in flames, is both over-prolonged and rather absurd. But you can't say it doesn't make an eventful start to Baldwin's married life.
Belladonna at Belstone (1999) and
The Traitor of St Giles (2000)
The Boy-Bishop Glovemaker (2000)
The Boy-Bishop Glovemaker has a rather confused sounding title, and, as the story develops, it too gets distinctly confusing. But, as with other books in the series, it gets off to a good start. Set in Exeter over Christmas 1321, Sir Baldwin Furnshill and his friend Bailiff Simon Puttock hear that Ralph, the cathedral's glovemaker and the city's beloved philanthropist (he sounds a bit too good to be true), has been robbed and stabbed to death. His apprentice is the obvious suspect but there is no trace of the missing tools and money.
When Peter, a Secondary at the cathedral, collapses from poisoning in the middle of Mass, the finger of suspicion turns on him. Yet if he were Ralph's attacker, where is the money now? And could Peter have committed suicide - or was he too murdered? When the dean and city coroner asks Baldwin and Simon to solve riddles surrounding the deaths, they are initially reluctant, believing them to be unconnected. But as they dig for the truth they find that many of Exeter's leading citizens are not what - or who - they first seemed to be. And the city's Christmas bustle is concealing a ruthless poisoner who is sure to strike again.
As always, the historical background is still of interest, as when it is explained that "Each year .... the Choristers would vote one of their number to become the Bishop and for one day, 28 December, .... the elected boy would become the city's bishop. For those twenty-four hours, the order of the city would be turned upon its head: the Choristers would become the Canons and the church hierarchy would be upside-down." When Henry, a particularly naughty boy is elected to the post, it sounds as though this is going to be an entertaining story about his outrageous behaviour as boy-bishop, but, in fact, this is hurried over in favour of a complex and increasingly tedious plot in which it is difficult to feel very involved.
Another historical tidbit that I found interesting is when Coppe, the beggar, comments, "What hypocritical bastards some village priests could be .... Never mind that they were supposed to be chaste; Coppe had seen them, out in the streets, small dogs on leads to tempt the women. As soon as a woman expressed delight in the priest's toy dog, he knew he had her halfway to his bed."
And one can well understand why "Early death held no fears for Sir Thomas. He was well into his middle age already at thirty-four; he had lived longer than many of the folks with whom he had grown up. The men had died of disease or fighting; the women from childbirth or starvation since when there were famines the men were favoured with food in order that they might produce more. Women and children must starve." And later there is a graphic description of a poison victim "being forced to be sick and then having a browser squirt something revolting up his arse."
However, too much time is still devoted to over-long conversations and lengthy explanations, although some of these are are helped along by occasional amusing moments, as when a beggar tries to tell the gatekeeper about the merchant's murder: "It's the glover," he began.
"Not bugger, glover! You know, Ralph - the fat man, always threw me a coin or two."
And it is Gervase (who is responsible for the Choristers) who comments: "The monsters had picked Henry. It was no surprise really, not if, like Gervase, you knew the boys. As he often told himself, boys of this age could be contrary little brutes at the best of times. Perhaps that was why they had elected Henry.... Children today just weren't as well-behaved as they had been in his youth."
Simon seems to play a more minor part in the story, and is most notable for his continued use of such expletives as "God's bollocks" and "God's balls" - presumably not language used by the most holy priests of the time. And Baldwin's wife Jeanne is now pregnant so we shall no doubt be hearing a lot more about this in future instalments.
Right at the start of the book there are as many as four additional sections: a glossary explaining, for example, what Rulers did (but not including the word "approver" which I had never heard before), a list of regulations for boy-bishops at Exeter, a very necessary cast of characters (although it does not include the first one I looked up, the porter Janekyin Bevvyn), and an author's note. All these are quite interesting in themselves but to lump all four together at the start seems unnecessarily off-putting.
The book's main problem, however, is that it doesn't build up much sense of suspense or excitement. It is almost as if the author realises this, because time and again he resorts to his old habit of building up to a climax then cutting away from it at the last moment, in what seems like an increasingly desperate attempt to keep us reading. But he does it so often, it just gets aggravating. It is not one of his better books.
The Tournament of Blood (2001)
The Stcklepath Strangler (2001)
The Devil's Acolyte (2002)
The Devil's Acolyte gets off to a slow and uninspiring start with an over-long retelling of an old legend about murders on the Abbot's Way, where a young acolyte paid the price for stealing his Abbot's wine when the devil himself led him to his death on the treacherous Devon moors.
Then, in the autumn of 1322, it looks as though history may be repeating itself. Abbot Robert has found his wine barrel empty, and a body has been discovered on the moors. Bailiff Simon Puttock is called upon to investigate but it soon becomes apparent that it's not just wine that has gone missing from the Abbey, and the body on the moor isn't the last. After the eventual arrival of Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the King's Peace (who is, as Simon knows, "the better investigator of them both") the mystery is finally solved.
it's a disappointingly slow-moving and confusing tale in which Simon does most of the detective work and the more lively Sir Baldwin does not even appear until page 119. Simon spends a lot of his time sulking, worrying that the Abbot has commissioned Sir Baldwin to look into his own shortcomings - and all this because he had forgotten to bring the official coiner's hammer to the Tavistock coinery where local miners had their tin assayed before they were able to sell it.
One of the more memorable characters is Brother Peter, the almoner, whose face had been hideously scarred years before, after being attacked by Scottish marauders. But the most interesting parts are occasional revealing glimpses into life at the time which really have very little if anything to do with the plot. One of these is the barber's use of a sleep-maker, a heavy club with which he knocked out his patients before pulling out their teeth. "Don't worry," he would say. "This will hurt you much more than me."
And it is of some interest how a hare would watch moving things rather than a man. So a countryman would hurl his coat past the hare: "The hare stared at it as it flew past, and meanwhile the man circled around it until he could grab it by the neck and quickly wring it."
The author's frequent cutting away from one scene to another makes for disjointed storytelling, and works even less well than in previous books because there are fewer really exciting moments to cut away from. And Sir Baldwin is reluctant to embark on yet another hunt across the moors because "Every time I visit, there is death and murder" and "he was growing to feel if not a fear, certainly a degree of apprehension." But he needn't worry. He's sure to survive. As for Simon, right at the end he is offered a new job, which he does not want but feels he can't refuse, as Keeper of the Port of Dartmouth. Perhaps this change of scene will do us all some good.
The Mad Monk of Gidleigh (2002)
The Templar's Penance (2003)
The Templar's Penance is set in the summer of 1323. Baldwin Furnshill and Bailiff Simon Puttock have been granted leave to go on pilgrimage. Together they arrive in Spain, and they are among the first on the scene when a beautiful young girl is found brutally raped and murdered on the hillside of Santiago de Compostela. Baldwin and Simon persuade the local pesquisidore, Munio, to let them help him investigate the crime - but then an unexpected face from Baldwin's Templar past turns up. Other attacks follow and even St Peter's finger puts in an appearance, and Baldwin's own future is soon threatened.
As the author explains in a note at the beginning, “When you have spent months of your life researching a subject until you really live and breathe it, it's very hard to discard the bulk of what you've learned in order that your editor won't tell you off for trying to preach about your era. Sadly, though, she's usually right. All the fascinating little details which get culled would have slowed the story down." But it's these little details of life at the time that often provide the most interesting parts of this book. What we could dispense with, though, are chunks of unnecessary historical background as when we hear all about King Edward II's problems and the past history of some of the characters whom we meet in the story.
The story has no lack of action (there is a particularly bloody prologue) but it is not always easy for the reader to feel really involved with what is going on. Baldwin, despite his eyes that "could at a moment's notice achieve a powerful intensity", and Simon both feel out of depth in a foreign country. On three separate occsions we are treated to descriptions of Simon's visits to the garderobe - so it is perhaps not entirely inappropriate that in the end a vicious attacker pushes him back into one that collapses under him and sends him plunging down “some 15 feet into the relative softness of the heaped sewage underneath”.
Although Simon is saved from this, he ends up becoming seriously ill and even the suggested treatment of more wine does not cure him. So when Baldwin's investigations take him to Portugal, Simon, nursed by Munio's attractive wife, has to stay in Spain. There is then frequent cross-cutting between them, which does not add to our concern about either of them but eventually grows distinctly tiresome. It is Simon who eventually identifies the murderer.
The Outlaws of Ennor (2003)
The Chapel of Bones (2004)
The Chapel of Bones Is set in 1323, 40 years after a treacherous attack on the Chaunter of Exeter Cathedral in the ossuary called The Chapel of Bones-- and now more deaths are occurring. The first might have been an accident but the second was surely murder. The victim, Henry Potell, a wealthy saddler, was feared and hated he held secrets that some were keen to keep hidden, and others wanted to see him destroyed for his part in the savagery of what had happened all those years ago. It is up to Sir Baldwin Furnshill and his friend Bailiff Simon Puttock (who is delighted to be summonsed back from Dartmouth) to sort it all out. It is now 7 years since they first met.
It all starts with a rather off-putting note from the author in which explains which parts of the story were based on historical fact and even apologises that “Sadly, because of time constraints, it is not been possible for me to learn precisely how much had already been done" in rebuilding the Abbey. It is a pity that he seems in a hurry in other ways too, as when he leaves out important characters like Thomas from his cast of characters in and fails to include frequently used words like corrodian in his glossary.
After a potentially promising start in which stonemason Thomas sees a "ghost" and accidentally drops a great stone onto Saul, a worker below, we are introduced to glimpses of a bewildering variety of characters. It is all very confusing. If only the author had adopted a more coherent storytelling style, it could have been so much more interesting.
As in the other books, the author has really mastered his historical details so we get an elaborately accurate description of how heavy blocks of masonry are lifted up to the wall and fitted in, and precisely how hides are tanned "after being immersed in a warm mixture of dogs' dung. Some tanners swore that birdshit was the best softener, but Wymond was sure that it was the dogs' dung that gave his leathers their natural pliability. All the leathers he'd seen which had used chicken muck tended to be a little more brittle; not quite so pleasant to handle. For his money, he'd stick to dogshit -- it wasn't as if there was any lack of it!". And there's a realistic account of an arrow being removed from Baldwin's chest. It's all good stuff, but no subsitute for a really exciting, coherent plot.
Meanwhile Baldwin is busy worrying about his adultery with a woman he had met while returning from pilgrimage in Santiago di Compostela (see The Outlaws of Ennor), the thought of which seems to have soured his relationship with his wfe Jeanne. There are other interesting characters too, such as Thomas's victim's widow Sara -- and I enjoyed the old porter in charge of the gate into the cathedral close who turned out to be a painter of religious and other pictures as well as a lover of good wine: “Just because I'm a porter doesn't mean I don't like good wine. I have an arrangement with the vintner. When I fetch my wine, he gives me good quality."
It is Simon who eventally identifies the killer, but only after pages of boring conversations with passages like, "Why would this Thomas suddenly fear recognition? The mason Saul was not a local man so how could he have recognised Thomas? And Henry Sadler was an accomplice of his, so why should Thomas kill him? As for the friar well, I suppose he could have seemed a threat, but what if we were right and Nicholas was himself one of the assassins? We thought he might have been in on the plot, didn't we? What could have made him so uniquely dangerous to Thomas? Also, surely the saddler himself, or the joiner, or even the corrodian, would have the same motivation? I do not understand why Thomas should have decided to enter this killing spree." Neither does the reader who, if like me, may not care very much one way or the other.
The Tolls of Death (2004)
The Butcher of St Peter's (2005)
A Friar's Blood Feud (2005)
A Friar's Blood Feud opens in March 1324. In the rural idyll of Iddesleigh, a gang of men break into the home of Bailiff Simon Puttock's servant, Hugh, and murder his family. When word reaches Simon, he and Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, Keeper of the King's Peace, find Hugh's cottage burnt to the ground, and the bodies already buried. At first it seems that Hugh too must have perished in a dreadful accident but when they learn of the battles between two neighbouring manors, Baldwin and Simon suspect a darker truth.
This develops into a lengthy, tedious and confusing story in which it is difficult to identify with any of the characters. Indeed you end up caring more about the fate of a bitch and her puppies than about the violent deaths of various unprepossessing and rather unreal people. An exception to this is the description of Simon's last talk with the dying old Abbot Robert whom he had known for many years and tried to encourage: “You will hunt again, Abbott," Simon said softly.
“No, friend Simon. I fear I shall not," the Abbot sighed. He looked up at Simon and smiled, “It is as I said, I long to set down my burden. I meant it. You go and see your wife, man. You don't want to be here in a dying man's room. Go and see your family, but come by here on your way back in case there is anything we need to discuss."
“I shall," Simon promised. He stood, but only reluctantly. This man had been good to him for so many years that leaving him today was a wrench.
He walked to the door and glanced back. The abbot was slouching in his chair again, his eyes on the fire. To Simon, he looked like someone who was already dead."
If only more of the other characters were described with the same concern and feeling.
Sir Baldwin himself seems to be coming more and more of a stock figure, although there is one revealing passage when we are told that, “There had been times when Baldwin had been interrogating witnesses or felons when all means of persuasion had failed and the men had stood resolutely silent. At times like that Baldwin would lower his head a little and fix his victim with an unblinking stare. He could do it by considering the man's offences, assessing his worth as a witness, or even, on one notable occasion, by trying to remember what it had been that his wife had told him not to forget to buy that day, but it always succeeded."
As usual, there are some interesting touches of local colour, as when we are told how several sons in the same family were often given the same name because parents “wanted a godparent to be as committed to his offspring as possible, and so named children after favoured friends." And it was interesting to learn that “there could be no leisure for a parish priest. He was another local farmer, just like all the others, and like all the others he must work (on the land) if he wanted to eat." But such glimpses of life in the past do not really compensate for all the nasty nobles, tedious speculations and explanations, and the lack of a really gripping plot.
The Death Ship of Dartmouth (2006)
The Death Ship of Dartmouth is set in the busy industrial port of Dartmouth in the early autumn of 1324. A man is found lying dead in the road. At sea a ship is discovered, half ravaged, and with the crew missing, following an attack that bears all the hallmarks of the supposedly disbanded Lyme Pirates. And Sir Baldwin de Furnshill is sent to Dartmouth by the scheming Bishop Stapledon to search for the Bishop's missing nephew who had been following a fleeing Frenchman who had used force to violate the Queen, and there was a dastardly plot by the great traitor Roger Mortimer, and there is the scheming young Hugh Dispenser, who .... and so the historical explanations go on ... and on.
Unfortunately it is not until page 138 that Baldwin arrives in Dartmouth and meets up with his old friend, now local Bailiff Simon Puttock, although it is Simon who continues to do most of the detective work. A more interesting and powerful character than either of them is the coroner, the tall, heavily, bouncy extrovert and tough fighter Sir Richard de Welles, who quickly takes charge. Sir Baldwin acknowledges to Simon that "I think we would benefit from his experience and knowledge" - and so they do.
Apart from him, however, the local merchants, workmen and seamen involved in the story are not very arresting characters, and the arch villain Sir Andrew de Limpsfield (who actively enjoys slitting people open) is little more than a stereotype. So it is difficult to feel very involved in what goes on, and the book is seriously overlong. The author has researched the period well and obviously finds it fascinating, but has told the story in such detail and with so many minor characters that you soon need his explanatory cast list to remind you who is who. Meanwhile there is altogether too much talking and questioning while the story meanders on.
As always, there are occasional historical explanations that do arouse some interest, such as when we are told how the size of ships came to be expressed in tuns: “All ships were assessed in terms of how many standard Gascon 'tuns' they could carry. Each of the enormous wine barrels weighed somewhere in the region of a ton, and they provided a handy measure against which to assess ships."
And some parts, such as the description of an attack on the murderous Sir Andrew 's ship are quite exciting, as is a subsequent fight scene involving Baldwin, but more often even the action sequences are less exciting than they might be because we do not feel sufficiently involved with the characters.
In the end it is Simon who tells Baldwin, "In God's name, I think I see it all, Baldwin. I think I see it all." But it takes him until page 443 to get this far. The author, by the way, explains in his preface to his next book that he “felt very satisfied with The Death Ship of Dartmouth. That book seemed to me to have a strong story, with some excellent action and fresh characters.” It's not how it seemed to me.
The Malice of Unnatural Death (2006)
The Malice of Uncertain Death is also set in 1324 but in Exeter where the body of a local craftsman and a king's messenger are found in the streets. Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, still the Keeper of the King's Peace, and his friend Bailiff Simon Puttock (who has been summonsed back from Dartmouth) are employed by the conspiring Bishop of Exeter to find out who was responsible. The dead messenger was carrying a dangerous secret that may prove fatal, should it fall into the wrong hands. Baldwin and Simon must find the murderer before he can strike again, but when murderers can use magic, no one is safe ….
It all gets very complicated and confusing and I had the greatest difficulty in remembering who the characters were or caring about what happened. Baldwin and Puttock keep coming and going and, as in previous books, the author no sooner starts to interest us in their exploits than he cuts away to something else. And they are no longer even particularly interesting characters. There is no more than a mention of Baldwin's pregnant wife and two-year-old daughter, and really the author seems to have nothing new to tell us about him.
Even the much more lively character of coroner Sir Richard de Welles has now sunk into the background, and in an unexplained reversal of roles plays very much second fiddle to the boring Baldwin. But he still has his occasional moments as when he threatens an unobliging watchman, “You tell that benighted excretion of a minor demon that whether or not I hold the inquest here today, I am working too, and if he doesn't want his balls separated from his body and spread over my roasted bread before the full inquest tomorrow morning, he had better get his arse over here RIGHT NOW!”
Much less interesting are the lengthy descriptions of Simon's painfully slow travel across Dartmoor, even including such items as a quite unnecessary description of how he builds a shelter. The equally lengthy account of how the Sheriff of Exeter's servant girl Jen quite wrongly convinces herself that the Sheriff is in passionate love with her, and ends up by murdering her best friend and fellow servant Sarra by mistake, instead of the Sheriff's wife Alice, is told in an entirely unconvincing manner. The author explains how he got the idea from a ghost story that he had read and found particularly sad - but parts, such as the description of the stabbed Sarra's death scene verge on the absurd: "She (Sarra) heard a sharp, piercing squeal and spun on her heel to see her lady (the Sheriff's wife Alice) staring at her with a hand to her mouth.
But no more words would come. In a bleak inspiration she knew what Alice had seen. The pain throbbed at first, like a bruise, but then she was racked with a white hot searing deep in the bowels, as she put her hand to her side she realised she was dying. There was a gushing from the wound, and a hot, burning feeling at her groin and heart, and as she fell to her knees she saw Jen baring her teeth in impotent malice at Lady Alice before springing away from the encircling men and darting up an alley.
… Sarah's sight was fading. She just couldn't focus. It was so irritating. And there was a roaring noise in her ears…" And so she expired.
Perhaps it is not so surprising that after such a long series of books the author should be running out of ideas and having to resort to unnecessarily detailed descriptions of someone having his fingers chopped off in a desperate bid to grab our attention, or the introduction of a sinister magician all set to dispose of the nobility by sticking pins into with wax figures. Is it time to move Baldwin off to an entirely new setting? Right at the end he agrees to accept the scheming bishop's suggestion that he should become a member of Parliament (so that he can protect the queen's children by removing them from their mother!) and presumably move off to pastures new. It all sounds wildly improbable.
Dispensation of Death (2007)
The Templar, the Queen and Her Lover (2008)
The Prophecy of Death (2008)
The King of Thieves (2008)
No Law in the Land (2009)
The Bishop Must Die (2009)
The Bishop Must Die is set in 1326. King Edward II's reign is beginning to disintegrate as England awaits the invasion of his estranged wife Queen Isabella from France. Edward himself is still very much under the sway of his lover, the unscrupulous Sir Hugh le Despenser, who is very much the villain of the piece.
The King's knights, including Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, Keeper of the King's Peace, are commanded to London to protect the king and his realm. Meanwhile the life of Bishop Stapledon of Exeter, the Treasurer of England, is under threat but from whom? He has made many dangerous enemies in a long political life, and Baldwin and Simon Puttock (ex-bailiff and now a farmer on his own little plot near Crediton) must do all they can to find the would-be assassin before he can strike. But first they must make up a quarrel of their own.
It is now ten years since Baldwin and Simon first met, and the Dartmoor setting of the earlier stories has been replaced by a whole host of other locations, including Paris, northern France, Canterbury, Portchester, and London. The story frequently jumps from one place and set of characters to another, and gets more and more confusing as it develops. It might have been more interesting if we could have concentrated more on Baldwin and Simon in the way that the equally long (but much more engrossing) series of Tremayne's Sister Fidelma books concentrate just on her and Brother Eadulf.
Another significant difference between the two series is the way that the historical backgrounds are treated.They seem an intrinsic part of the story in the Fidelma books, but Jecks often seems more successful in giving us little history lessons than in really bringing his characters to life. He cannot resist giving us more background information than we really need, so he repeatedly uses phrases like "The Thursday before Candlemas" as a heading, then adds an asterisk to a footnote below explaining that it is 30 January 1326. But, if this is important, why not just say it in the first place? And when the town of Bishop's Lyn is mentioned, he cannot resist adding an unnecessarily long footnote that “The lands here were acquired by King Henry VIII after the Dissolution, at which point the town was renamed Lynn Regis or Kings Lynn. The latter name stuck.”
There is more violence than in the earlier books (some of it, such as the stabbing to death of a young beggar-boy, seems quite unnecessary), but we do not always feel very involved in the fate of the victims. This is not helped by a certain clumsiness in some of the writing, as when we are given the elaborate explanation: "The Lady Isabella was most grateful to the generous-hearted baron for allowing her to come here to this restful little castle up at the top of the hill overlooking two rivers. Without his kindness, she was not sure what she might have done when her carter's horse fell by the roadside, his foreleg snapped in a pothole. A widow's life was never easy. The first loss of a husband had been a shock to her. A sudden, tragic death was always hard to accept, but at least her darling Peter Croc had died quickly, without apprehension, unlike Henry Fitzwilliam. He had languished for such an awful long time, in that cursed gaol, with no friends, no support or companionship. Just installed there, and left to rot fror thirty-nine weeks, suffering all the torments a man may. The King would not consider a pardon; his heart forged from steel. So Henry waited and waited, until one day his heart simply gave out. Even then there was no honour in his treatment. His body was left in the gaol at Gloucester until his son came to collect it.”
However it gets more interesting when the Bishop takes shelter in the Tower of London, and the ever-present threats to his life certainly keep us on our toes.
The Oath (2010)
The author has his own informative website on which he not-so-modestly describes himself as "The master of the medieval murder mystery".