Review: The Deadliest Sin by Jeri Westerson

Review: The Deadliest Sin by Jeri WestersonThe Deadliest Sin (Crispin Guest Medieval Noir #15) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Crispin Guest #15
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House Publishers on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Crispin Guest is summoned to a London priory to unmask a merciless killer. Can he discover who is committing the deadliest of sins?
1399, London. A drink at the Boar's Tusk takes an unexpected turn for Crispin Guest, Tracker of London, and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, when a messenger claims the prioress at St. Frideswide wants to hire him to investigate murders at the priory. Two of Prioress Drueta's nuns have been killed in a way that signifies two of the Seven Deadly Sins, and she's at her wits end. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing outside of London when the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, the new Duke of Lancaster, returns to England's shores with an army to take back his inheritance. Crispin is caught between solving the crimes at St. Frideswide's Priory, and making a choice once more whether to stand with King Richard or commit treason again.

My Review:

Pride is one of those infamous “Seven Deadly Sins”. It’s also the one that “goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall”, at least according to Proverbs 16, verse 18 of the King James Version of the Bible. Which was still more than two centuries in the future at the close of this final book in the Crispin Guest series.

Which does not make the verse any less apropos.

Because this is a story about pride. The blind pride of the Prioress at St. Frideswide’s Priory, the ambitious pride of Henry of Bolingbroke, the long-ago pride and puissance of the late John of Gaunt, the privileged but unearned pride of Richard of Bordeaux, and last but not least the battered pride of Crispin Guest, once lord, former knight, convicted traitor to the king that is about to be deposed, but loyal to the death to the king that is about to be.

But while all this pride is swirling in the air and down the length and breadth of England, someone is killing the Holy Sisters of St. Frideswide’s Priory and staging their bodies in a gruesome parody of the mural of the Seven Deadly Sins that serves as a chilling backdrop to the reliquary of St. Frideswide’s relics.

Even if some of those relics have been stolen. After all, greed is also one of those seven deadly sins.

Crispin Guest has been reluctantly (very reluctantly) called to the Priory to investigate a string of murders. It’s what he does as the infamous “Tracker of London”. The Prioress’ grudging cooperation and high-handed stonewalling isn’t enough to keep him from figuring out who committed the crimes, but his distraction over the changes sweeping the country and the monarchy make the solution more elusive than it should be.

On every side.

Escape Rating A-: Not every historical mystery series involves itself as much with the politics of its day along with the mystery, but from this reader’s perspective it seems like the best ones do, going all the way back to Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series along with Candace Robb’s Owen Archer and C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series right alongside Crispin Guest. All these series take place during one succession crisis or another in English history, and all of the detectives had some involvement, great or small, in the roiling political climate of their day.

(If you’re wondering, the Cadfael series takes place during the succession war between King Stephen and Empress Maud, Owen Archer protects the city of York as the curtain goes up on the Wars of the Roses, Crispin Guest is collateral damage in that same war as it heats up and royal heads start rolling, while St. Cyr is operating during the Regency, which was itself an inventive solution to the succession crisis that followed in the wake of George III losing the American Colonies and his mind.)

The politics were built into this series from its beginning, all the way back in Veil of Lies, published in 2008. At that point, Crispin had lost everything except his life as part of a plot to push Richard II off the throne and put John of Gaunt on it. (The Wars of the Roses happened because Edward III had too many sons who survived to reproduce, and all of them fought over who had the right to be king in one succession crisis after another from Edward’s death in 1377 to Richard III’s death at Bosworth Field in 1487.

So readers have followed along with Crispin as he learned to be a commoner, and as he honed his skills as the “Tracker of London”. By the time this story takes place in 1399, Crispin has been the Tracker for 15 years. He’s not just learned to survive, but he’s actually become mostly content with his circumstances, only for his entire life to be upended once again.

Crispin’s final case is a troubling one. Someone is murdering nuns inside a closed priory and posing their bodies in horrific tableaus. The Prioress wants the murders solved, but stands in the way of Crispin’s every attempt to solve them. She has her own vision of the work and life of her priory, and doesn’t want anyone to spoil her illusions.

As if three, then four dead sisters didn’t spoil it quite enough.

Without forensics, Crispin is forced to rely on his wits, his memory, and on his opponent making a mistake, while he’s distracted by events in the kingdom that might serve as vindication for his long-ago trials, or that might change his life. Meanwhile, the priory that is supposed to be a haven of religious service is actually a hotbed of sin, vice and favoritism that the prioress doesn’t want Crispin to see – or expose.

The situation is a mess, as so many of the situations Crispin gets himself into are. It’s also an unexpected ending. An ending that Crispin is afraid to anticipate out of fear of having his hopes dashed yet again.

I was sorry to see this much-beloved series come to an end, although the end is in all ways fitting, as Crispin’s journey from disgrace to penitence to vindication has come full circle. But there’s this niggling sensation at the end that, as content as Crispin now is with his restored life and honors, he misses the intellectual challenge of being the Tracker. And that it might just be possible to lure him back.

I sincerely hope so.

Review: Sword of Shadows by Jeri Westerson

Review: Sword of Shadows by Jeri WestersonSword of Shadows by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Crispin Guest #13
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House Publishers on April 7th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
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A quest to find the ancient sword Excalibur quickly turns into a hunt for a determined killer for Crispin Guest.

London, 1396. A trip to the swordsmith shop for Crispin Guest, Tracker of London, and his apprentice Jack Tucker takes an unexpected turn when Crispin crosses paths with Carantok Teague, a Cornish treasure hunter. Carantok has a map he is convinced will lead him to the sword of Excalibur - a magnificent relic dating back to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table - and he wants Crispin to help him find it.

Travelling to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall with Carantok and Jack, Crispin is soon reunited with an old flame as he attempts to locate the legendary sword. But does Excalibur really exist, or is he on an impossible quest? When a body is discovered, Crispin's search for treasure suddenly turns into a hunt for a dangerous killer.

My Review:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” or so the saying goes. And that’s certainly true in the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, of which Sword of Shadows is the lucky, or unlucky, 13th book.

They may DO things differently in 1396 A.D., but that doesn’t mean that human beings are actually any different, either better or worse, than they are in 2020. Or than they were at the time of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, whether that was the quasi-medieval era as later chroniclers made it, the latter part of the Roman occupation of Britain, as historians claim it, or a magical period of myth and legend as written in the chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth – the only version that would have been extant in Crispin’s time.

King Arthur shouldn’t be relevant, as Crispin deals in facts and motives, evidence and crimes, in the real world. But he also needs to keep a roof over his head and food in his belly. While he is best known as the “Tracker of London”, solving crimes and righting miscarriages of justice, sometimes he takes other work.

So this tale begins. A gentleman “treasure hunter” feels that he is on the track of Excalibur. While the sword may be shrouded in myth and legend, Carantock Teague believes that he has found clues to the fabled artifact’s location – that Excalibur is hidden somewhere near Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, purported to be the site of King Arthur’s birth. Teague hires Crispin – and Crispin’s apprentice Jack – to come with him to Cornwall and help him search for it. And to guard him if he finds it.

The pay is too good to turn down, even with a wet, cold, miserable fortnight’s journey to Tintagel by horseback to start it off.

But once there, the search for the sword is complicated by the discovery of not one but two extremely recent corpses. Meanwhile, Crispin’s sometime quarry and occasional lover, Kat Pyle, has arrived in this remote spot to either bedevil Crispin, nab the treasure before he can, or make some other mischief.

Knowing Kat as he does, Crispin can’t help but wonder if the answer is “all of the above – and more.”

The question is whether it is only Crispin’s heart at risk – or his life.

Escape Rating A-: Sword of Shadows was a terrific read. It was a return to a series that I’ve picked up off and on over the years and always enjoyed. It dipped into a legend that has always fascinated me, the Matter of Britain, or as it is better known, the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. And it was also a reminder of journeys of my own, as I read the first three books in this series, Veil of Lies, Serpent in the Thorns and The Demon’s Parchment, on a Caribbean cruise, back when such things were possible. This series was among the first things I read on my then-new Nook. How time flies.

That being said, although there were nostalgic elements attached to this story for me, I don’t think they are necessary to enjoy this book. If you love historical mystery, this is one of those series where the author has meticulously researched every detail, and the reader feels as if they are walking beside Crispin whether on the streets of London or exploring the caves on the Cornish coast. This is a series where you not only feel the feels, but you also smell the smells – good and bad.

It is a series where some prior knowledge is probably helpful, but does not have to be exhaustive. I haven’t read the whole series, just dipped in here and there, and enjoyed the journey back to England during the reign of Richard II, during the opening stages of what history would call the Wars of the Roses.

This particular event in Crispin’s life is a bit different than the usual stories in this series as it takes Crispin out of the London that he has come to call home and out into the country, far away from not just his home but from any place with which he is familiar. Crispin has become a creature of London, a man of the city, that’s where his reputation and his living are.

In Tintagel he is a complete outsider, and has to do his job of tracking the murderer – or murderers – in a place where he is not well-known, where his current reputation is of no help but his long-buried past as a traitorous knight is still remembered. He knows no one, but he still has a job to do – even if it’s one that he isn’t getting paid for.

At the same time, he is teased and tormented by the search for Excalibur and the legends surrounding it. In the end, catching the murderer, as difficult as it is, turns out to be easier than letting go of the search for the sword. The myths that are wrapped around the hilt of Excalibur have caught better men – and many, many searchers – before Crispin, and have continued to do so after, inspiring creators century after century. The way that Excalibur fades into the mists of Cornwall in this story feels right – and sends a chill up the spine at the same time.

The author claims that Crispin’s story is coming to an end. His next outing, Spiteful Bones, will be his next-to-last adventure. Normally I’d say that I couldn’t wait to read his next book, but knowing that his journey is coming to an end means that I’ll be happy to wait a bit. I’ll be sad to see him go – but I hope it will be into a happy and successful retirement. We’ll see.

Review: Season of Blood by Jeri Westerson

Review: Season of Blood by Jeri WestersonSeason of Blood (Crispin Guest Medieval Noir #10) by Jeri Westerson
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Series: Crispin Guest #10
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House Publishers on December 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A missing Holy Relic. A mysterious and beautiful woman. Two murdered monks: Crispin Guest tackles his most intriguing investigation to date.

1390. Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, England. Two monks lie murdered, their Holy Blood relic stolen: a relic that is said to run liquid for the sinless and remain stubbornly dry for the sinner. Unwilling to become involved in a bitter dispute between a country monastery and Westminster Abbey, the disgraced former knight Crispin Guest attempts to return the relic to Hailes where it belongs, but somehow it keeps returning to his hands no matter what.

As he tries to shield a former nemesis from a charge of murder while becoming entangled with a mysterious and beautiful woman caught between Church politics and the dangerous intrigues of King Richard's court, Crispin begins to suspect that someone at Westminster is conspiring with the assassins. Can the Blood of Christ point to the killer?

My Review:

Season of Blood follows last year’s A Maiden Weeping, and Crispin seems to have learned very little from all the trouble he got into during that case.

A man dies on his doorstep with a knife in his back. In Crispin’s down-at-heels section of London, that actually might not be all that uncommon an occurrence. But the dead man in this particular case is a monk. And in addition to his corpse, he leaves Crispin with two big problems.

That knife in the monk’s back clearly bears the seal of Simon Wynchecombe, former Sheriff, current Alderman, and always a thorn in Crispin’s side. Simon hated Crispin while he was Sheriff, and beat and belittled him at every turn, including when he needed Crispin to resolve a case.

The second problem presented by the corpse is that he has a religious relic in his possession. Crispin has been involved with relics before. He doesn’t trust them or the people who traffic in them. But the damnable things keep invading his life, and that never ends well for him.

On the heels of the corpse, a woman hires Crispin to find her errant niece, who seems to have run off with a married man – that married man being the same Simon Wynchecombe whose knife was in the dead man’s back.

This all should scream “unlikely coincidence” to Crispin the expert tracker, but something about this woman has Crispin doing most of his thinking with his little head instead of his big one. Not that that hasn’t happened before, too. Crispin can never resist a pretty face, especially when there’s a clever brain behind it.

So Crispin, as usual, finds himself investigating a case where he trusts that no one is telling the truth. He is forced to rely on his own wits to determine who killed the first monk (and eventually the second and the third) without having anything like 21st century forensic science. Only his own knowledge of how things work and how people behave – even if his wits are a bit addled by the beautiful woman who seems to be at the center of this spider’s web of a case.

And just because he doesn’t believe in the truth of the relic, doesn’t mean that others are not willing to kill for them. Or that just because so many of the people involved with this case are celibate monks, does not mean that there are not men under those robes, just as fascinated by a pretty face as he himself is. Possibly even the same pretty face.

The chance to solve this conundrum tests Crispin at every turn. But the unexpected chance to score against an enemy – PRICELESS.

Escape Rating B+: A part of me wants to say that this was fun, in spite of the dead bodies falling at every turn. This case is interesting because it is so foreign. The past is definitely another country in this one.

Crispin is skeptical about the truth and the efficacy of those much venerated relics. His attitude is in some ways almost modern, and in others fits within his time. He’s not sure they are real, but if they are, we don’t deserve them. And it’s not for him to judge their religiosity, only to follow the trail of death and end it – no matter the cost.

But this is a case where trying to follow “who benefits?” is difficult because the benefits don’t seem based in our reality – even though they are in theirs.

As always, Crispin is a fascinating character. Once upon a time, he was a nobleman, who lost his station and his fortune by backing the wrong claimant in one of the early skirmishes of what became later known as the “Wars of the Roses”. He should have been killed for his treason, but instead he was reduced severely in station.

He should have died of his ignorance, but instead was helped and taught until he could manage to make his own living as the infamous “Tracker” who solves problems for a fee and shows up the Sheriffs at every turn. He has seen life from both the heights and the depths, but is a stranger in both and at home in neither.

He’s also in his mid-30s and starting to feel that he is no longer young. At the same time he has no idea of if or how to “settle down”. He does have a knack for gathering interesting people around him who both help and support him. A group that gets more interesting all the time, particularly in this outing.

If you like historical mysteries where you really feel (and occasionally taste and smell) just how different the past is from our own present, Crispin Guest is a master at bringing his world to life – and solving its suspicious deaths.

Review: A Maiden Weeping by Jeri Westerson

Review: A Maiden Weeping by Jeri WestersonA Maiden Weeping (Crispin Guest, #9) by Jeri Westerson
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Series: Crispin Guest #9
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House Publishers on August 1st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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" When Crispin Guest finds himself trapped in circumstances outside his control, he must rely on the wits of his young apprentice, Jack Tucker, to do the rescuing. " Crispin awakens in a strange bed after a night of passion when he finds a woman dead, murdered. Drunk, Crispin scarcely remembers the night before. Did he kill her? But when other young women turn up dead under similar circumstances, he knows there is a deadly stalker loose in London. Could it have to do with the mysterious Tears of the Virgin Mary kept under lock and key by a close-lipped widow, a relic that a rival family would kill to get their hands on? What does this relic, that forces empathy on all those surrounding it, have to do with murder for hire? With Crispin shackled and imprisoned by the immutable sheriffs who would just as soon see him hang than get to the real truth, Jack hits the ground running and procures the help of a fresh young lawyer to help them solve the crime.

My Review:

As the saying goes, “the past is another country, they do things differently there.” That saying seems especially true in A Maiden Weeping. In this case the past that is so different is just that, a case. A legal case. We tend to think of the law and the court system as being bound in tradition, and that its tradition has not changed in centuries.

As this historical mystery shows all too clearly, human nature may not have changed much in the past 600 plus years (or possibly the past 6,000 or even 60,000 years) but the court system certainly has. As American readers, we expect contemporary English courtrooms to operate slightly differently from our own, but not that much – they do spring from the same root.

What we see here is much, much closer to that root, and the operations of the court are very different from what we expect. Whether that is for better or for worse is certainly a matter for opinion and debate, but absolutely different.

veil of lies by jeri westersonCrispin Guest, who normally tracks down murderers and thieves, this time finds himself as the accused. And where he once was accused quite righteously of treason (read the first book in this series, Veil of Lies, for more of Crispin’s background) in this particular case Crispin is innocent of the crime.

But he is very, very definitely in the frame. The Sheriffs of London are tired of Crispin making them look like fools, and eagerly snatch the possibility of removing him from being a perpetual thorn in their sides. His guilt is in some doubt from the very beginning, and the small powers that be do their level best to get Crispin tried, convicted and executed before he has a chance to prove himself innocent.

So the expert ‘Tracker’ of London is forced to rely on others to discover the truth. Foremost among those others is his apprentice Jack Tucker, who will need every scrap of the knowledge he has gained from Crispin to discover who and what is at the bottom of this case, and the farrago of lies that surrounds it.

But Jack knows that he needs help. So he finds himself at Gray’s Inn, the first of four law courts of London, and not yet half a century old. The young lawyer that Jack engages is just barely out of his own apprenticeship, but Nigellus Cobmartin is eager and energetic in taking Crispin’s case, even as he prays that this case will have a better outcome than his last case. Which was also his first case. And he lost.

Nigellus best option is simply to delay, to give Jack time to investigate. But the more Jack digs, the more strange events he uncovers, and not all of them seem related to the mess that has Crispin behind bars. Two families are feuding over a priceless relic, with both Crispin and the murdered woman caught in the middle. But there is also a serial killer on the loose, murdering women just like the original victim. Is this all about the relic? Is it a case of a fetish gone wrong? Or is there a third possibility, yeet to be revealed?

And can Jack figure it out in time?

Escape Rating A-: I read the first three books in this series several years ago, swallowing them whole while on a cruise, and being absolutely enthralled. But like many other series, I lost track of Crispin Guest in the “so many books, so little time” conundrum. I’m looking forward to the chance to catch up.

It takes a bit to set the stage for this one. At the beginning, Crispin isn’t doing well, and makes a series of rather foolish mistakes that land him in this pickle. One gets the feeling that he should have known better, but at the time, he was, well, pickled. He needs to take himself in hand, and it is not a pretty sight.

At the beginning, Jack is lost and scared, and so he should be. His first case requires him to save Crispin’s life, as Crispin saved his. Jack grows up, as he needs to. He fumbles more than a bit before he finds his way.

The court system operated very differently in the late 14th century than it does now. Even if you don’t normally read the “Foreward” to a book, in this case it provides an essential bit of stage-setting for how justice functioned at this time. It’s different and fascinating and all the things that we are used to seeing in a courtroom are either completely turned on their heads or, like the use of lawyers, just barely in their infancy.

Part of the frustration at the beginning is that it is obvious to the reader that Crispin is being framed, and equally obvious that the officials that we believe should be finding the real criminal are using this mess as a convenient way of getting rid of Crispin, and that they are all in on it. It offends our 21st century sense of justice. This feels correct for the period, but it makes for hard reading.

But once the stage is set, the story really gets going. Jack is on the run every second, trying to do what he believes Crispin would do, meanwhile learning as he goes. The roadblocks deliberately strewn in his way are many and dangerous.

Crispin is a character at a crossroads. He spends much of the book contemplating his life from a cold prison cell, a sneaky feline his only company. He is forced to think about how his life has come to this particular pass, and both what he needs to do, and what he needs to accept, if he is to have a life after this point. In a way, he too grows up and changes, in spite of being well into his 30s. The man who emerges is different from the one who began.

And that makes him an interesting character to follow.