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The Sempster's Tale
Dame Frevisse Mystery, #15

by Margaret Frazer

      Dame Frevisse is in London to arrange for certain funeral vestments to be made following the murder - or rather execution - of her cousin Alice's husband, the unlamented Duke of Suffolk. Secretly she also has to recover, hide and then send to Alice a large sum in gold coins, which are coming to her via the sempster (a mediaeval word for seamstress) who is working on the vestments. Anne Blakhall has been working as such since the death of her husband and clandestinely seeing a new man whom she loves. But merchant Daved Weir is a Jew, and technically there are no Jews in England since their expulsion over two hundred years earlier. When a body is found marked with Hebrew lettering, fingers begin to point to a Jewish connection so it is inevitable that Daved will be uncovered.

This is always a fine series with Frazer's attention to detail, fascinatingly real characters and superb grasp of history but it is seldom actually exciting - but there is a first time for everything. Every book has something different to enjoy and that is the new element here, as well as a look at London during the Jack Cade riots and a look at how Jews were viewed in those days. Racial and religious prejudice is never an easy subject to deal with, but by portraying the characters as warts-and-all as possible they seem like real people. Perhaps the hot-eyed friar is a cliché, but he is sadly a historically accurate one. I enjoyed reading about how a woman could be a businessperson in her own right (the Renaissance has a lot to answer for) in the Middle Ages, and the tense excitement of the riots had the urgency and immediacy of a news report. Surely the message here is "nothing new under the sun", and a topical flavour is imparted by depicting a time of political unrest and religious intolerance. Top marks as ever, although the abrupt ending could have been better managed.

Reviews of other titles in this series

The Servant's Tale, 2
The Outlaw's Tale, 3
The Bishop's Tale, 4
The Prioress’s Tale, 7
The Bastard’s Tale, 12
The Hunter's Tale, 13
The Sempster's Tale, 15
The Traitor’s Tale, 16

The Book

Berkley Prime Crime (Penguin)
January 2006
Historical [1450 London]
More at US || UK

The Reviewer

Rachel A Hyde
Reviewed 2006
© 2006