Jason Vail’s first novel, “The Wayward Apprentice”, introduces us to one Sir Stephen Attebrook. An ex-soldier and a lacklustre lawyer, Stephen resides in Ludford at the tavern owned by his clerk, Gilbert Wistwoode, and is the Crown deputy coroner. We open with his being called away from a meal of mutton to the body of one Patrick Carter. Cause of death: knife to the ribs (as we later find out). His corpse is surrounded by the folk who were in the Ludford brew house and we are treated to a brief description of medieval England’s concept of justice with its jury systems. What seems like a simple drowning is quickly revealed as murder most foul.
In the meantime, Stephen has been engaged by Anselin Baynard to locate and return the runaway apprentice, Peter Bromptone, who has eloped with the beautiful Amicia. The antagonism between the Bromptone family with their patron, Nigel FitzSimmons, and Baynard is pushed to the limit with the firing of the latter’s mill. It hasn’t helped that Bromptone and FitzSimmons tried to have Stephen ambushed after his perusal of the wayward apprentice.
The other side to the story is revealed by the ex-lover of Carter, Johanna, whose daughter, Pris, is in love with the dead man’s son, Edgar. Unfortunately, Johanna has different ideas and is wanting to betroth her daughter to the nephew of the grasping Clement. We get a sense that every character isn’t quite revealing the truth and everything that has happened and will happen is inextricably interlinked.
The truth is finally teased out of the younger generation who only wish to be with those they love rather than their more cynical parents who have alternative motives for everything. It means that Stephen finds himself in a duel with FitzSimmons whilst trying to prove that Peter Bromptone hasn’t murdered Anselin Baynard who meets a dagger in an alleyway halfway through the book.
We reach a tidy denouement, a story of revenge and family honour. Stephen makes several powerful enemies, for no rich noble likes his murderous laundry laid out for all to see. With his partner in sleuthing, Gilbert, and the gossip-positioned Harry to feed subtle clues to him, Stephen Attebrook is a cautiously welcome addition to the medieval sleuths.
Jason Vail reminds me somewhat of the peerless Susanna Gregory. The setting is eighty-odd years before Matthew Bartholomew and Cambridge, but Vail’s pace and easy rhythm coupled with a cast of dozens and a complex unraveling mystery is the closest I’ve seen to Gregory in considerable time. This is not to say Vail is as good as Gregory, but, if he carries on like this with Sir Stephen in the same settings, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he, one day, is as eagerly sought out by this reviewer as that author is.
Few minor issues:
- the Kindle version opens each chapter with “Ludlow, September 1262”. I suspect each chapter is meant to give an actual day as well as the constant repetition of this is pointless;
- there are some typos in the Kindle version. “Harry’s bowel” rather than ‘bowl’ being somewhat amusing
- the “erotic” scene in the tavern fairly early on. It’s badly done and utterly unnecessary. No more in the next one, please.
Other than that, this author has started pretty well. I’ll encourage you to pick up this one.
Categories: Jason Vail