|Roger the Chapman
(creator: Kate Sedley)
|Roger the Chapman had been brought up in Wells in present-day Somerset in the second half of the 15th century. His father had died after falling from cathedral scaffolding when Roger was four, and the bishop had paid his mother a small pension which she had used to enter her son as a novice with the Benedictines at Glastonbury. But he found that he could “never be quite certain that Christianity holds all the answers", so he left the Abbey at the age of 18 before he had taken his final vows.
He welcomed the chance to try his luck as a chapman, selling his wares (needles, thread, cheap jewellery, bits of cloth and other such small items) on the road. He still feels that God is guiding his steps even though “I've always found it necessary to argue with God on occasions even if He always wins the argument in the end .... I have tried to free myself from Him often and often, but somehow I never could." But he does not really know exactly what it is that he believes in.
He soon found that he had a "remarkable memory" and a real talent for “solving puzzles, unravelling mysteries that baffled other people" and he soon proves to be an intrepid investigator. He is some six feet tall and handsome, with fair hair and blue eyes. He immediately impresses people, not only with his good looks, but with his ability to read and write. And he can put up a good fight when he needs to.
Kate Sedley is the pseudonym of Brenda Margaret Lilian Honeyman Clarke (1926 - ) who was born in Bristol and educated at the Red Maids' School, Westbury-on-Trym. She is married, with a son and daughter and one granddaughter. Death and the Chapman was her first detective novel. She has a special interest in Anglo-Saxon and medieval history. She had previously been the author of a whole series of historical romances written under the name of Brenda Honeyman. I would welcome more information about her (via my guestbook).
Death and the Chapman (1991)
what had happened to all four missing people. It leads up to his sudden understanding as to who the master criminals really are - and his realisation that first impressions can be very misleading.
There is a rather melodramatic climax in which the chief villain insists on talking too much, thus giving time for Roger to be rescued at the last minute. But, as with a previous attempt to stab him, you never really feel that he is in that much danger, despite the “venomous hatred" with which his captors regarded him. 'You know,' one of the would-be murderers "grunted softly, 'I shall positively enjoyed this night's work.' " It is all too bad to be true.
It is Roger who, as an old man of “three score years and ten", looks back and narrates the story throughout. This form of storytelling works quite well, except for one slightly awkward moment when we are told, “My first two days in London were days I will never forget, not even if I live to be a very old man". But it is he who as a very old man is telling the story! And his story does not always ring true, for he seems unnaturally confident in dealing with all the challenges that are thrown at him - and is also remarkably lucky in the way that he is helped along by a string of fortunate coincidences.
The historical background is no more than lightly sketched in, although even then there are times when it degenerates into rather boring little history lessons. And characters tend to be stereotyped, with eyes that twinkled (Marjorie Dyer and Thomas Prynne. Lady Anne Neville had eyes that "shone like stars"). It seems too set in the realm of historical romantic fiction - with even the whores romanticised.
And Roger himself seems a rather unconvincing teenager when he explains, “I should sleep sounder for having tied up the loose ends of this problem. I have always disliked loose ends." He describes himself as “a callow youth who knew nothing about the world, but thought he knew everything". But he does not seem at all callow. Indeed he seems to take things very much for granted, whether it is finding his own way through the streets of London or making love for the first time: 'Kiss me,' the girl commanded, "laughing again at my horrified expression.
Roger has no hesitation in forgetting about his "humble status" when he rigorously cross-questions the great Lady Mallory, and he has remarkable self-confidence when he confidently explains, “God meant me to take a hand .... I reminded God tersely that He had got me into this mess and that it was up to Him to get me out of it. He reminded me that he had given me strength, health and a thinking brain and that it was up to me to use these precious assets. I abandoned the argument."
But it makes quite an entertaining light-weight story that it is easy to read, with some pleasing throwaway lines such as, “Things aren't what they were, as I keep telling my children and grandchildren. And, come to think of it, as my mother told me.“
This was the first of a series of twenty novels, all featuring Roger the Chapman, but I am only reviewing a selection of them here.
The Wicked Winter (1996)
As he journeys west, he finds himself following in the footsteps of an itinerant preacher, a Brother Simeon, whose fiery sermons which threaten hellfire to sinners are the talk of the countryside. Roger, who finds such zeal wearying, is less than enthused when they meet beneath the roof of Cederwell Manor where Simeon has come to pray with Lady Cederwell and Roger to sell her his wares. But then Lady Cederwell's dead body is found sprawled on the frozen earth, and Roger and Simeon seem to become united in their aim to discover the truth behind her death.
Despite three murders, it is another lightweight tale, and a chapman's life is made to seem extraordinarily easy, as Roger never seems to experience the slightest difficulty in selling his wares. Some of the family episodes, however, including the awkward relationship between a widow and her daughter-in-law, or between Roger and his mother-in-law, are lively and realistically described. And at times you can feel involved in some of Roger's adventures, as when he finds two naked legs sticking up out of a well, and wonders whether it is possible that it had been he himself who had left the well cover off.
It becomes noticeable that Roger seems to have a particularly dangerous time right at the end of chapters, as for example when he tells us, “I was standing on the second step of the worn and slippery flight when someone pushed me hard in the back, and I went plunging through the air to the floor below." And so we are encouraged to hurry on to the next chapter to see what happens next. In fact, Brother Simeon finds him stretched out and unconscious and tells him, "I wondered if something untoward might have happened when I found you like this." The words seem almost comic.
The descriptions of heavy snow and its effects are convincing, more so than the melodramatic climax, during which Roger recklessly and unnecessarily confronts the murderer, whose “expression, no longer recognisable, was that of some monstrous gargoyle, leering at me and rejoicing in his wickedness. The eyes in the parchment-coloured face were devoid of all humanity and burned only with the lust to kill." It'll be interesting to discover whether later books carry on in this vein.
Roger by now has remarried and, despite being confined to a one bedroom cottage, has a happy home life with his much-loved wife Adela, their three week old constantly crying son Adam, and rather resentful three-year-old Nicholas and Elizabeth, children of previous marriages. The family atmosphere, and the tension between the children are very well caught: "I knew what it was to be kept awake at night by a baby demanding to be fed; what it was, never to be able to make love to my wife discreetly and in comfort, without the fear of a small, inquisitive figure suddenly rearing up on the neighbouring mattress asking the dreaded question, 'What are you doing!"
The husband-wife relationship is convincing described: "I was all for rushing out as I was, my beard being so fair that my morning stubble was barely noticeable or so I argued. But Adela would have none of it and stood over me while I provided my razor and rubbed my teeth with willow bark, then saw me dressed in a clean shirt, straightened my tunic and patted my cheek approvingly, exactly as she would later do for Nicholas." And she is perfectly capable of saying no very firmly when Roger suggests some enterprise of which she doesn't approve. Roger admits, "I was the head of the household. My word was law. That was the theory, anyhow. But in practice, Adela and I had never thought like that. We relied on each other for our strength and happiness. We worked together and respected each other's point of view." She sounds more of a contemporary than a medieval figure.
There's some welcome humour, as when old Goody Godsmark berates her son for his behaviour, telling him, “ I've told you about your bad manners, my lad! Try to remember your mother's a fucking lady!" The awkward relationship between Roger and the sheriff's officer Sergeant Richard Manifold is brought to life too, with the lonely Manifold veering between happily accepting invitations to supper and threatening him, “I'm warning you, Chapman! Keep your nose out of my enquiry or I will see you clapped in gaol!" - and at one point he even actually arrests Roger on a charge of murder. But later, it is Roger who seems to be interrogating him.
What is less convincing, and less interesting, is the basic plot, (with more than its fair share of simple-minded characters) leading up to the by-now familiar climax when Roger is sent off by a fake message, gets knocked out by a vicious blow to the head, and, immediately he recovers, recklessly goes off to confront the murderer, only to be rescued at the last minute, after the murderer has lengthily confessed all. All the elaborate explanations grow distinctly tedious, although parts of the period background, describing for example the magnificent bread and pastry sculptures produced for the Saturday feast, still excite interest. And the author can write in a very down-to-earth style. But the little history lessons about the royal goings-on, even including a quite unnecessary description of Clarence's death in a butt of Malmsey wine, get rather boring, as well as confusing - and it is hard to believe that ordinary people (including Roger) would be quite so well-informed and interested in what was going on so far away.
It is also beyond belief that Roger should be confronted with so many murders in quick succession (well over 30 in the series so far) - so many that he becomes a virtual full-time detective and just a part-time chapman! Like Hercules his new dog, (who rescues him at the very end) he seems too good to be true. You can't help wondering whether more attention on domestic issues and less on unlikely murders might have resulted in a stronger story. But presumably the publishers, who rely on the library market for most of their hardback sales, feel happier just getting more of the same.
The Prodigal Son (2006)
His search for the truth is complicated by the sudden and unexpected arrival of Anthony Bellknap, the elder son who has been missing, presumed dead for the past 8 years, and has now returned to claim his inheritance. Anthony succeeds in antagonising almost all of the Manor's inhabitants (he even attacks the food servers and the cook), so when he is found murdered, there are many suspects for Roger to consider. But he is convinced that the past and present killings are linked, and if he can prove the connection, his half brother's name will be cleared.
Roger's wife and children only appear briefly at the start and end of the book. A pity this, as they seem more real than most of the characters as when Roger admits that the children are a bit of a trial and only seem interested in the presents he can bring them. So, much as he says he loves his wife ("I have never kept anything from her during our married life. If she had any advice, she would give it and I might even follow it. I had the greatest respect for her opinions"), he always seems pleased to get away, together with his aggressive dog Hercules (who is one of the more convincing characters in the book). it is Hercules who offers him a decapitated mouse that he had caught, “dropping the headless corpse at my feet and smirking proudly. And if you think dogs can't smirk, you're wrong."
The basic plot though is extremely unlikely with some characters taken straight from the pages of romantic fiction, so George Applegarth, the steward at the Manor House, had eyes is of “a deep, definite slate-grey, and the kindest I had ever met, in which humour, sadness and the love of his fellow man all seem to mingle."
Roger, who is after all only a humble peddler, is amazingly allowed to witness violent and highly personal arguments between Anthony, his aggressive younger brother and their domineering mother, and is then invited by Anthony (who had previously just met him briefly at an alehouse) to stay on as his honoured guest, much to the fury of his mother. It all passes belief, as does some of the dialogue when Anthony hears about the murder of the steward's daughter: “George! Sweet virgin. I have only just been told. About Jenny, I mean. My God, my God! How did it happen? A robbery, Mother says. All the pewter and silver taken as well as some of her jewels."
It is not long before Roger is even telling off the aggressive Anthony, with whom he even shares a bed (a common practice in those days - but not usually involving a servant and Lord of the Manor): " Why are you set on antagonising everyone?" he demands, then goes on to cross-examine him about his past. And he gets away with it!
There is are strong similarities between the numerous books in this series and it is no surprise that Roger notices in the middle of the night a figure in an all-enveloping cloak and hood watching his window. The author herself is conscious of all this repetition and gets Roger to comment, “With a sudden surge of irritation, I wished I had a golden noble for every time in the past few years that I had encountered this mysterious, cloaked man - or woman." And it is not long before Roger is telling us once again that "a memory niggled at the back of my mind; there was something I knew I ought to remember.“
It all it all gets very over the top with Anthony's younger brother shouting at him, "In God's name, I wish someone would kill you!" Then "No sooner had he spoken than there was a vivid flash of lightning, followed by an earsplitting clap of thunder. The flames of two candles, standing in a wall niche, were suddenly extinguished" and one of the women promptly "gave a little sigh and fainted."
It is, of course, Roger who rather belatedly reveals the identity of the murderer(s) and in so doing establishes the innocence of his own half- brother who promptly disappears from his life. However, despite pages of tedious explanation, none of it sounds too likely.
It is, the blurb tells us, an investigation “which will imperil Roger's life as never before". But by now such dangers must have become part of his everyday life, for he ends up knocked on the head, as usual, and finds himself tied up and at the murderer's mercy, as usual. But Roger himself is not a very convincing chapman, as in this story he doesn't even have to pretend to sell anything, and is a remarkably articulate and sophisticated narrator, with a remarkable knowledge which he keeps ascribing to his training as a novice - but he knows far too much for this to seem very likely.
The author keeps on giving us unnecessarily historical information, including whole pages devoted to detailed accounts of events that we do not really need to know about. Here's just one example of this: "Richard had arranged to rendezvous with the cavalcade travelling across the country from Ludlow Castle, where the young king had been raised for most of his life as Prince of Wales. It seemed that only the timely intervention of another of the Royal Plantagenet cousins, Henry, Duke of Buckingham, had revealed the plot to Richard in time for him to arrest the ringleaders the queen's brother, Anthony, Earl Rivers, her kinsman, Sir Thomas Vaughan and her younger first-marriage son, Sir Richard Grey and have all three escorted to separate prisons in the north. The Dukesa of Gloucester and Buckingham had then taken charge of the young king, escorting him into his capital, while the Queen Dowager had fled into Westminster sanctuary accompanied by the little Duke of York and her bevy of daughters, where they still remained today." It gets very hard to follow page after page of this - and who wants to anyway?
The author is at her best when describing domestic scenes, as when she describes how Roger's children, when he returned home, “as usual, want only to know what I had brought them and were perfectly happy with the sweetmeats and stuffed figs I had managed to buy in Bath market". And I like the way the children tell the Spymaster General, who has come to take Roger back to London, "He's not coming with you .... No, he's not". And even four- year-old Adam joins in, "So go away," he roared, "Even as a baby he had possessed a fearsome pair of lungs, and although he had grown quieter with age, he still liked to exercise them on occasions." No wonder "the Spymaster General looked dazed. In the world which he inhabited, children were respectful and deferential to their elders, answering only when spoken to." If only there had been less melodrama and more scenes like this in this story.
However, there are some interesting period background details, such as the explanation that the handkerchief “was still something of a rarity. Most people like me continue to use their fingers or their sleeves". And episodes like the way in which the women of the sewing room make scurrilous suggestive comments about Roger for “women in the crowd could be far cruder than men, however sweet and modest they might be singly" seem to ring true.
But the way Roger chats to God is rather less convincing: “ 'I know it's you, Lord,' I told Him severely. ' Don't think you are deceiving me for a single moment. You're interfering in my life again, snatching me away from home and family because there is some villain or perhaps in this case more than one villain, that you want to brought to book. I'm not a fool. I recognise the signs by now.' There was no response. There never was, but sometimes I could swear that I could hear God laughing."
The final melodramatic conclusion, involving a secret society of murderous women, ends up being almost comic, rather than horrific as the author must have intended. And, as so often, the murderer ends up by explaining all to the captive Roger just before he is miraculously rescued.
|The top design looks much less cluttered. Both hint at the rather romanticised content.|