This book falls very obviously in the cosy, period mystery category. It is a slow read and though I am usually easily bored, I got a jolt when I realized that when the murder finally occurred, about 80% of the book was finished, and that I already knew who the murderer was and more importantly the fact that this didn’t really bother me at all, as I was so engrossed in the story until then.
The Goodreads blurb for the book reads as follows :
Leaving St. Frideswide to visit Minster Lovell was a welcome respite for Sister Frevisse–until murder visited the quiet manor. And though much of the household suspected a guest who was prone to violent fits, Frevisse knew too much about murder to be easily fooled.
That blurb is too short and unhelpful for anyone trying to make a decision about picking up a book. It is almost disinterested and not very fair to the author/s of the novel. Usually, Goodreads gives the readers a pretty good idea of what to expect from a book before they pick it up, so this was probably just an oversight.
The main protagonist is Sister Frevisse, who is a pious, middle-aged nun with a sharp intellect and a short, irritable temper, which she has been trying to control for a long time now. She is not someone who suffers fools easily and thus it becomes very difficult for her, especially as a nun, when she must do so with charity and compassion. One must appreciate the effort she puts into being a good person and probably learn from it, nun or not.
The year is 1437, and Sister Frevisse and her fellow nuns are adjusting to the unwelcome change in the command of the priory in the form of Dame Alys after the death of the old prioress. The reason for her getting chosen as the prioress in the first place is extremely comic in a tragic sort of way, emphasizing more than ever the power of the evil-minded over simple, honest folk. The new prioress holds grudges and is quick to take offence at real or imagined slights, especially from those she deems a threat to her authority, Dame Frevisse being number one on her list. As a respite from the mounting tension between them, Dame Claire, an older nun and an especial friend of Dame Frevisse plans a pilgrimage to atone for a, I strongly felt, non-existent sin.
On the way they bump into the characters whose story this actually is. It is more a psychological analysis of the different people in the story than a mystery, since the reader is aware about the identity of the murderer, almost from the beginning. That must be excruciatingly boring one would think, and yet , it wasn’t so. The story takes its slow, meandering path through the lives of the characters, telling us about their present associations at the time and we learn about their pasts along with Dame Frevisse, which in turn helps to uncurl the complex, relationships between the four main protagonists. These are Lionel, a rich, good-natured nobleman, who is afflicted by epileptic seizures and is on a continuous pilgrimage in the hopes of a miraculous cure; Giles, his cousin and heir, who hates Lionel with a barely controlled passion; Evelyn, Giles’ wife, who grew up with the boys and loved Lionel first, but married Giles when Lionel fell ill, and is a friendly, happy person; and finally Martin, who is Lionel’s shadow and trusted servant, taking care of him when he has his fits and being a true friend in the process. It is interesting to note, how easy it would have been to blame a sick man in those times when everything was blamed on either God or the Devil. A man suffering from epilepsy thus becomes someone possessed by a demon and thus must be shunned as much as possible, even if he is an extremely rich man apart from being someone believed to be given to criminal tendencies.
But Dame Frevisse being the contrary person she is, refuses to accept the simple, straightforward explanation and plunges herself into an inquiry about the affairs of the household. I think she manages to succeed in this case, only because the woman in authority is an inherently honest and wise person; and of course, owing to sheer luck.
I was surprised to learn that this book was co-authored by two people, since it runs so seamlessly together. The duo writing team broke up after this book in the series and I would be interested to see how the absence of one half of the creative genius affects the story-telling in the consecutive books.