A Dreadful Penance
Well, 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.”
Despite the lack of editing….as the great Charles Dickens had Oliver say: “I’d like some more.”
I must say I am delighted to have found Jason Vail. His opener – “The Wayward Apprentice” – was a well crafted medieval mystery and this sequel is equally as palatable. Following immediately on from the close of the first novel, the list that was key to solving the murder in the opening novel pops up within pages. The King’s judge, Valence, has heard of the list naming dissidents against King Stephen’s rule and wants it. Our sleuth and part-time hero, Sir Stephen Attebrook, missed a trick when he left it in Baynard study and his attempt to reclaim it is too slow as it disappears just before Baynard’s ex-butler, Muryet, is found dead at the bottom of Mistress Webbere’s staircase.
Clement has a more prominent role in this novel, Stephen dismayed to find he is under the jurisdiction of Valence and charged with locating the list. In the meantime, the newly widowed Olivia Baynard has her cousin Margaret in town whose blatant seduction of our Coroner has a faint of whiff of collusion. Stephen realises that to find the List he must find the murderer of Muryet. With Valence holding his son Christopher against his continued investigation he swiftly uncovers a mess of relationships in the town which culminates in further murders. Someone is two steps ahead of Gilbert and Stephen, killing any witnesses who have had possession of Baynard’s List. An inevitable terrible denouement with our sleuth demonstrating his sword skills brings us literally full circle to a water butt, a chest and a sadness of deception that engenders some pathos for Stephen.
Vail is good. His hero is likeable, his mystery kept simple, the assorted cast of characters plausible. The thirteenth century sketch of Ludlow, England shows an author who has some knowledge of the period but doesn’t choose to drop into wishful descriptions that can be criticised by those who know the period in some detail. I’d draw a parallel to Susanna Gregory or Ellis Peters but we need a few more stories from the pen of this US author before any true comparisons can be made. If we can just remove the odd drop into “americanisms” in the text: “knocking him into a puddle on his fanny and producing a brown splash” (pg74 Kindle) then the odd jolting unrealism will disappear and these books will convince the reader of the period and place we are meant to be in.
I’m glad I found Vail – quite by chance – he’s got a new fan here. Hope to see more
The Wayward Apprentice
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 unravelling 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
3) 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 definitely read the next one.