So, half-foot Sir Stephen Attebrook is back for his fifth outing alongside portly sidekick, Gilbert (a classic Sherlockian character set up in such novels, brilliantly taken forward in the genre by Susanna Gregory). This time Ludlow has a small problem as King Henry comes by, ostensibly to receive the bejewelled thigh bone of St Milburga who has recently received sainthood. Problem is, the advent of a small armed force so close to the Welsh border leads to one of them, Ormyn, being pitched off the castle walls through a tree, to ignobly end up dead, naked and a headache for Stephen who is tasked by the King with finding both the Earl of Arundel’s relic and emeralds pronto. On the plus side it does mean a truce with his sempiternal enemy -FitzAllen.
Harry the legless beggar has a growing role in these books as Vail realises the importance of his oddly charming, inevitably attractive, ex-soldier; replete with sardonic wit and intelligent eye and a post outside the Wobbly Kettle pub, Harry is able to snuffle out details from the less salubrious members of town (such as the pimping Thumpers) , giving Stephen’s oddly awkward chivalrous notions the necessary injection of rough information as and when needed. Gilbert also gets his own chapter or two after Stephen rides hard to catch up with Richard Parfet who disappears to raid near Welshpool which enables us to understand more of his insecurity despite his intellectual pomposity. He’s also put on a sticky wicket with the monks of Greater Wenlock Priory over a ‘stolen gospel’.
Without giving much away what follows involves disreputable townsfolk, gambling bowlers, and nefarious soldiers like Wace Burscott, Turling, Bridget, and Michael amongst others who try to obfuscate and prevaricate against Stephen’s investigations, leading him into more than one fight with horse, quarterstaff, sword and fists before eventually pieces together a tale of dishonour amongst thieves. All of which has him groaning as his solution to the crime results in the deaths of the protagonists, lands him in the cells, and, ultimately, costs him a horse, thus scuppering his chances of leaving Ludlow – a place he thinks he is heartily sick of, but Vail has other ideas about. At least, as Gilbert wryly observes:
“It’s a measure of your worth you are hated by great men rather than little ones.”
This series is also a measure of author Jason Vail’s worth. Read them whilst you can before a publisher realises there is a gem here and publishes them for a price that genuinely reflects the narrative talent inside. If you like Ellis Peters, you’ll find a hearth inside these pages.