Review of ‘A Dreadful Penance’ by Jason Vail


A-Dreadful-Penance-Vail-Jason-9781470083342Well, I have to say I got to the end of this and I am still having trouble finding out what the dreadful penance was that caused the author to title this book. Still…
I like Jason Vail. I am going to cautiously compare him to the peerless Ellis Peters. The reason for this is that I like the simplicity of his narrative, the tidiness of his action and plot, the effectiveness of the mystery. In much the same way I like the departed Ms Peters’ Cadfael novels. This is not to say I think Sir Stephen Attebrooke and his trusty sidekick Gilbert Gristwoode should make it onto the small screen played by the inestimable Derek Jacobi. There is also the matter that Mr Vail seriously needs an editor to steer him. In fact I’d go so far as to venture this novel was written before the other two; or at least drafted. It has a “newness” about it that isn’t quite as polished as the previous books.
The story concerns a trip by Stephen to a run-down priory at Clun on the Welsh border to find out who has murdered the sub-cellarer, William. In addition he’s tasked with having Gilbert find out what Prince Llywelyn is up to (something that proves irrelevant given the climatic fires in the novel). En route to the Priory he comes across a bandit raid on innocent travelers and is forced into a confrontation with the bullying lord of the town – Sir Percival FitzAllan. This, in turn, leads him to investigate the characters of Hugh, Oswic, Llwyn, Odo, Brin, and Bran. Suffice it to say he manages to work out the truth without too many vicissitudes, makes a couple of friends and stomps off back home having solved a mystery, found some treasure and watched a town burn to a charred crisp.
Back on the theme on an editor….and with regard to the historical and literary aspects. There are a fair few faults. For example, Stephen’s sarcastic reference to “Estonia” is far too tenuous. I seriously doubt he would have even known of the place given its subjection to Denmark from 1227; the phrase “stand and deliver” is used which didn’t occur till at least the time of Shakespeare (16th century); the phrase “send someone off on a lark” originates in the eighteenth century; use of “smallpox” – a word not used until the fifteenth century; “smart as a whip” – a twentieth century phrase! Then there was the ambiguous “wrath guard” – I still have no idea what Vail is trying to allude to.
The list goes on. There is the lack of capitalisation for proper nouns – “prior” and “chapter” being the main culprits and capitalisation where there should be none (“It” instead of “it”). Several typos appear including “unstung” (for “unslung”), “distance” (for “distant”), “force” (for “forced”), “where” (for “were”), A lot more exist and I’m not going to to list them all.
These editing mistakes are rather irritating. The former smack of poor research…this stuff is all easily found on the web…the latter of zero proofreading. It doesn’t take much to eradicate them and Vail needs to do this.
Back to the novel…by the end there has been a change in Stephen’s character from the deputy coroner from the first two novels. He’s a harder man, more prone to action than musing…and that’s not a bad shift. As he reflects: “You can’t solve murders by sitting in the grass.”
Indeed.
Despite the lack of editing….as the great Charles Dickens had Oliver say: “I’d like some more.”



Categories: Book Reviews, Jason Vail

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