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The Butcher of St. Peter’s
Medieval West Country Mystery Series

By Michael Jecks

     The nineteenth case for Baldwin and Simon is set once again in Exeter, scene of The Chapel of Bones (also reviewed on this site). Six years earlier, hapless butcher Estmund Webber loses first his child to the terrible famine, and then his wife to suicide. Forbidden to bury her in consecrated ground, he is shown where in the cathedral yard she can be interred, and his friend Henry Adyn helps him dig the grave. But officious Sergeant Daniel Austyn has other ideas, and the events of that day cast long shadows into the future. Now Henry is a shadow of his former self, Estmund roams the city by night to gaze at sleeping children and Daniel has just been murdered.

Jecks’ brief flirtation with a Susanna Gregory style of humor has long departed, and in its place is a much darker style—far more so than ever before in this tale. In fact, Baldwin doesn’t make an appearance until some way into the book and Simon is hardly there at all. Creeping through the book like a shadow is the evil Bill Sikes-like figure of brothel keeper Jordan le Bolle—gambler, wife beater, killer and torturer of prostitutes. Perhaps the most refreshing thing here is that this is very far from a story about overbearing nobles and downtrodden peasants, surely standard fare for any mediaeval fiction. This is instead a tale of ordinary city folk and the troubles they get into among themselves: gambling, whoring, fighting and murdering. It perhaps brings the 14th century to life more than usual, as so much that happens here is human nature and not linked to any particular period. If this sounds like a departure, it certainly seems that Jecks is trying something new, although this is not all there is inside this extremely lively book. There is also a well-documented case of cathedral versus Dominican friars and comic-though-ugly tussles regarding burials and funds, but somehow this is very much a sideline to the main, gripping plot. If you think that mediaeval whodunits are all cozy herb gardens and gentle clergy, then you probably ought to read this. Jecks keeps reinventing his style and I look forward to what he thinks up next. A very strong series.

The Book

April 2005
Historical Crime [1323 Exeter, Devon, UK]
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NOTE: Violence

The Reviewer

Rachel A Hyde
Reviewed 2005
© 2005