Medieval Noir Series, No 3
September 27, 2011 / ISBN: 0312609264
Historical Mystery / England / Middle Ages / 1300s
by L J Roberts
First Sentence: He’s still out there.
Crispin Guest was once a nobleman but backing the wrong side caused
King Richard to strip him of his title and lands leaving him a veritable
outcast living in near squalor.
He, and his apprentice Jack Tucker, survive by Guest’s skills
which have earned him the sobriquet of “The Tracker”
due to his reputation for finding anything. In this case, Guest
is approached by a physician to the Queen. The man and his daughter
are staying at the castle—dangerous territory for Guest—and
are Jewish, which is rare as all Jews were expelled from England
or forced to convert by Edward I in 1290. But need overcomes prejudice,
and Guest agrees to search for missing parchments which may be associated
with the recent spate of murders of young boys.
Jeri Westerson paints a well-researched, unglamorized picture
of 1300s London in which weather is very effectively employed; contributing
to both to the sense of place and suspense. Her excellent descriptions
make real the squalor and deprivation in which many people lived.
It also serves as a contrast between the protagonists of Crispin
and Jack and nobility with whom they are involved.
Although this is the third book in the series, the enough history
of the characters is provided so new readers don’t feel lost.
And what excellent characters are Crispin and Jack; they are master
and servant yet dependent upon one another as well. Crispin is also
an excellent protagonist in that he is skilled but not infallible
and is inclined to let his pride overcome his common sense, yet
he received quite a few life lessons which added to his growth as
a character even though there were times he seemed unrealistically
naive. Young Jack is so appealing in that he is not always brave,
but is loyal.
Factual history is effectively woven into the plot with Westerson
using historical figures very well and believably in their true
persona. There is the complicated relationship of Crispin to John
of Gaunt King Richard. The major theme relates to the status of
Jews in England. The portrayal of the bigotry and mistrust both
Jews and Christians had for each other was very much in play and
superstitions ran strong in both faiths although it did feel a bit
heavy-handed at times.
Scenes with action and/or suspense, even minor ones were very
effectively conveyed with writing that was evocative and visual.
Initially, the dialogue sounded too modern to my ear, but this was
quickly remedied and progressed to conveying the flavor of the period
without being a burden to the reader. I also felt there were a few
unfortunate plotting decisions but none so much so as to take me
out of the story.
“The Demon’s Parchment” had a great number of
strengths and a few weaknesses but is well worth reading by those
of us who really enjoy historical mysteries.