Rather belatedly perhaps, I have discovered a whole raft of historical detective fiction in the same rich seam as CJ Sansom’s Shardlake novels or Rory Clement’s John Shakespeare series.
Bruce Holsinger has written a novel. His books on Medieval English Literature are well renowned, so it is not surprising that he has mined that particular seam in his novel The Burnable Book. The time is 1385. The years of Richard II’s minority, when he was still very much influenced by his uncle, John of Gaunt and Lancaster’s arch-rival the Earl of Oxford.
These were times of great unrest and turbulence. A peace treaty with France was reaching the end of its term, and the Scottish borders were also in a state of possible invasion in a pincer movement by the Scots, allies of the French.
Richard was still young, he had survived the Peasant’s Revolt but the ensuing death of Wat Tyler was still making uneasy waves among the populace – London was a tinder box, rumour, superstition and gossip was simply waiting for the flame.
Around this genuinely difficult and tremulous time, Bruce Holsinger has woven a conspiracy theory of riddles and doggerel that has everyone on edge.
A book, possibly prophetic, has been stolen from Kathryn Swynford, still at this time the mistress of John of Gaunt. Several people are looking for it, among them Kathryn’s brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer and to assist in this search he has enlisted John Gower, his friend and poet.
But Chaucer is playing fast and loose with a number of aspects of this tale which he has not shared with his friend, the first of which being that one person has already been murdered for this same book.
Another piece of information that might have affected the whole story is the truth about John Gower’s son, Simon, who is absent in Italy, having escaped a murder charge before the story begins…
How much truth there is in the fact that John Gower was an intelligencer as well as a poet is a matter for conjecture, in Chaucer’s epic Troilus & Criseyde John Gower appears as a “moral man”, his character in these novels is somewhat more ambiguous. What is not in doubt is that this is a tremendously intelligent and enjoyable novel taking us into the streets, stews, stinks and lanes of medieval London. Full of detail, derring-do and dishonesty and a rich cast of women of ill-repute, tradesmen and others. London at its most vivid and exciting. John Gower returns in another adventure in The Invention of Fire.
We then leap a century or two to the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. The Royalist by SJ Deas covers the period immediately before the surrender of the King. Cromwell’s New Model Army, a paid militia, is still being fashioned from its unlikely troops, a horrible mixture of true Protestants and indented Catholics, but all is not well in the camp.
Three young men have been found hanging, one after the other from the same tree. Oliver Cromwell needs to know what is going on, so he releases a bound prisoner awaiting the gallows, William Falkland and sends him with Henry Warbeck to find out. What Cromwell doesn’t know is that William Falkland is his own man, what Falkland doesn’t know is the true nature of his task.
Because of this, nothing turns out quite as it should and what befalls all of them hangs by a thread…neither Warbeck nor Falkland trust each other and so by not sharing knowledge that could have saved them a lot of trouble, they blunder about in the wretched winter camp risking their necks…
This is part of a series, The Protector is already in print, another adventure for Mr Falkland…
The last of the three books also occurs in the time of Cromwell. It is a more fanciful tale, a historical mystery set in Essex and London. John Grey, a nascent lawyer, becomes involved is a Sealed Knot conspiracy and eventually joins the employment of John Thurloe, the spy-master general of Oliver Cromwell. In this first adventure, John Grey is mired as deep as could be in a murder for which he is not responsible, cluelessly he blunders about trying to find out what is going on, but he doesn’t know his friends from his enemies…
LC Tyler has set up his central character so that when we meet him again he may have matured into a more useful tool for his master, in this first adventure which unravels slowly and intriguingly, he is all at sea.