Review: The Yeoman’s Tale by M.J. Trow

Review: The Yeoman’s Tale by M.J. TrowThe Yeoman's Tale (Geoffrey Chaucer #2) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Geoffrey Chaucer #2
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on July 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


Poet-sleuth Geoffrey Chaucer is caught up in the chaos of the Peasants' Revolt as he attempts to track down a brutal killer.

June, 1381. Embarking on his annual pilgrimage to Canterbury, Geoffrey Chaucer and his fellow travellers are forced to turn back when confronted with a horde of armed and angry peasants, intent on marching to London. Returning to the city to warn the authorities of the approaching danger, the pilgrims hole up at the Tabard Inn and prepare for the coming invasion.
That same night, a woman's body is fished out of the River Thames, her throat cut. When he discovers that the victim was the wife of one of his fellow pilgrims, Chaucer determines to investigate. Could the woman's henpecked husband be responsible for her death? A jealous business rival? Or was she murdered by one of the pilgrims? Does a cold-hearted killer lurk within the Tabard?
As the army of rebellious peasants approaches, Chaucer finds himself in a race against time to uncover the truth before anarchy descends.

My Review:

Just as in the first book in this historical mystery series featuring the very real and historical Geoffrey Chaucer as a fictional and very amateur detective (The Knight’s Tale), this year’s story begins with Chaucer setting out on his annual pilgrimage to Canterbury. The one that inspired his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales.

As Chaucer and the group of assorted pilgrims set off on their journey from London, we’re introduced to Chaucer’s fellow travelers as they start telling each other stories to pass the time. It begins to seem like we’re going to be following along as Chaucer experiences the inspiration for his Tales much more directly than he – or we – ever imagined.

But that’s where this much-anticipated and well-planned pilgrimage goes completely off the rails. Again. Last year the pilgrimage went on but Chaucer himself did not embark upon it as he was forced to remain in London due to the events of the earlier book.

This year, this spring of 1381, the entire company is forced to turn back by events that are much larger and more encompassing than anything Chaucer ever imagined in his poetry. The pilgrims on the road to Canterbury run headlong into the massed Commons of England as they march toward London and their date with doom and destiny in what history records as the Peasants’ Revolt.

They return to a city that is about to be besieged, even if none of the powers that be are willing to acknowledge that the ragtag army heading their way is any kind of a threat to the small but well-armed and well-trained militia that guards the city and especially the palace and person of the king, Richard II.

Only to find that the death they fled on the road has preceded them into London. One of the members of their party chanced upon a dead woman floating in the Thames, a not uncommon occurrence at the time. Upon discovering that the poor unfortunate had her throat expertly slit, the yeoman who found her concluded that she had been murdered and couldn’t let the matter rest. So he brought the corpse to the inn where the pilgrims were gathering – and about to be surrounded by the invading rebel army.

There’s more than one situation stinking up The Tabard Inn as the guests prepare to impatiently wait for either rescue or death. But even in the face of all the death and destruction about to overcome them, Geoffrey Chaucer can’t let this one, seemingly unrelated murder go without trying to discover whodunnit.

Escape Rating B-: The thing about historical mystery, just like other hybrid genres, is that it has to satisfy both sides of its equation in order to satisfy its readers. In this particular case, that means that the historical setting and characters need to be well-researched, fully-fleshed out, and seem at least plausible for their time and place, while the mystery still has to encompass the elements that readers expect of that genre, a crime to solve, an investigator, whether amateur or professional, and a solution that gives the reader the satisfaction of learning the motive, the means, the opportunity and the perpetrator of the crime – while seeing justice served upon that perpetrator in one way or another.

Whether historical mystery readers are going to find their reading of The Yeoman’s Tale satisfying is going to depend a great deal on whether they prefer their historical mysteries to emphasize the historical side of that blending or the mystery side.

Just as in The Knight’s Tale, while the author plays a bit fast and loose with the recorded events of history, the situation is plausible and the characters do fit very well into their time and place. But to say that the mystery part of The Yeoman’s Tale plays second fiddle to the historical tale of the Peasants’ Revolt, the sacking of London by the rebel army, and conditions in London and the (most likely fictional) siege of The Tabard Inn doesn’t go quite far enough. There’s an entire string section playing between the history and the mystery, with the mystery being the last, lonely instrument in that orchestra.

Not that the mystery doesn’t also get resolved in the end. But it just isn’t the story here, so calling this a historical mystery does not give the reader the true flavor of what they are about to read. And not that the story that is told here doesn’t have its fascinating and compelling moments. Chaucer the character is an up-close and personal witness to history in a way that the real man likely was not in this particular instance.

But the first book in this series, The Knight’s Tale, dealt with history on a much smaller scale and allowed Chaucer, as both character and amateur investigator, to take center stage. In this second outing, the events that surround the mystery are much bigger than any tale that Chaucer ever told.

The real historical events, even in this fictional perspective, take center stage in this story, pushing Chaucer, the mystery he seldom even thinks about during this crisis and pretty much everything else not just onto the margins of the stage, but frequently off the stage all together.

Consider this review “The Disappointed Reader’s Tale”. I really enjoyed The Knight’s Tale and was hoping for more, which is not what I think I got. And not that I don’t enjoy historical fiction set in the Plantagenet period, which this is, but I have to say that this is my least favorite part of that long dynasty. But I picked this up expecting a historical mystery and just was not thrilled with the story I got instead. If the series continues I’ll probably pick up the third book, but I’ll be a lot more cautious in my expectations.

Review: Four Thousand Days by M.J. Trow

Review: Four Thousand Days by M.J. TrowFour Thousand Days (Margaret Murray, #1) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Margaret Murray #1
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House Publishers on November 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


Introducing turn-of-the-century archaeologist-sleuth Margaret Murray in the first of a brilliant new historical mystery series.

October, 1900. University College, London. When the spreadeagled body of one of her students is discovered in her rented room shortly after attending one of her lectures, Dr Margaret Murray is disinclined to accept the official verdict of suicide and determines to find out how and why the girl really died.
As an archaeologist, Dr Murray is used to examining ancient remains, but she's never before had to investigate the circumstances surrounding a newly-dead corpse. However, of one thing Margaret is certain: if you want to know how and why a person died, you need to understand how they lived. And it soon becomes clear that the dead girl had been keeping a number of secrets. As Margaret uncovers evidence that Helen Richardson had knowledge of a truly extraordinary archaeological find, the body of a second young woman is discovered on a windswept Kent beach - and the case takes a disturbing new twist ...

My Review:

This has been a week of mostly mysteries – or at least a week of conundrums of one sort or another. Margaret Murray’s first foray into amateur detection fits right in. But I was expecting it to considering how much I enjoyed one of the author’s previous mysteries, The Knight’s Tale.

The process of professional archaeologist and amateur detective Murray becoming involved in this case-that-is-almost-not-a-case is marvelously immersive and feels true to the character. It also does a lovely job of introducing the reader to this time and place, London in 1900 as the new century turns over and a new era is on the horizon.

It also places us squarely into the academic environment of University College – that Godless Institution – at a time when women academics were, shall we say, rather thin on the ground. Murray was (really) one of a kind. Her professional credentials are a bit haphazard, because women weren’t supposed to be what she was. But she’s doing her best – which is quite good – to encourage the women who follow in her wake.

And that’s where this story really kicks off, as one of Murray’s part-time students is a police constable called to the death of another. Constable Crawford is sure it’s murder, while the detective in charge calls it suicide – clearly because he doesn’t want to investigate the death of a prostitute.

That’s where Crawford calls in Murray, and Murray calls in retired Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Edmund Reid – who was the real life copper in charge of the Met’s investigation into the Ripper killings. As Murray and Reid poke their noses into places that someone seriously wishes they shouldn’t, the string of murders gets longer and the tempers of officialdom get shorter.

The trick, or the question, or both, is discovering what the deaths of a part-time student and part-time prostitute in London, a full-time student on an archeological dig in Kent, and the most boring professor in the entire University College have in common will require just the kind of digging that Margaret Murray can’t let go of – even if it kills her.

Margaret Murray (3rd from left) unwrapping a mummy in 1908

Escape Rating A-: Margaret Murray reads like a combination of Amelia Peabody (Crocodile on the Sandbank) and Harriet Vane (Strong Poison), all the better for Murray having been a real person, who really had the kind of background and went on the kind of adventures that make her a perfect fit for this sort of story.

Seriously, even though as a real person thrust into the role of amateur detective she’s a bit more like Nicola Upson’s version of mystery author Josephine Tey in An Expert in Murder – and their real life time periods do overlap – Murray combines Amelia Peabody’s expertise in Archaeology (and a mutual acquaintance with Flinders Petrie) with Vane’s experience walking the halls of academe at a time when women were just grudgingly accepted. At best.

While the case that Murray discovers herself in the middle of – and is nearly done in by – has just a bit of a hint of the puzzle that Mary Russell digs herself into in A Letter of Mary. (That’s a bit of a hint, BTW)

As much fun as it is to speculate about the relationships between the real historical figures that populate this story and seem to be part of Murray’s inner circle of helpers and investigators, it’s the character of Murray herself that makes this so much fun.

Often, in historical fiction of all stripes, in order to make a female character the active protagonist and give them real agency it is necessary to make them a bit anachronistic, outré, or both. They end up not feeling like creatures of their own time in order for us to identify with them in ours.

Murray’s actual biography lets the reader know that she was a person of her time – and yet that she really was doing it all uphill and against the wind, so to speak. Which allows her to speak both to her time and our own.

The real-life Margaret Murray lived to be 100. After reading Four Thousand Days, I would be thrilled to read 100 years of her adventures as an amateur detective – or pretty much anything else she – or her author – decided to turn their hand to!

Review: The Knight’s Tale by M.J. Trow

Review: The Knight’s Tale by M.J. TrowThe Knight's Tale (A Geoffrey Chaucer Mystery #1) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Geoffrey Chaucer #1
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on August 3, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Introducing 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer as a memorable new amateur sleuth in the first of an ingeniously-conceived medieval mystery series.

April, 1380. About to set off on his annual pilgrimage, Comptroller of the King’s Woollens and court poet Geoffrey Chaucer is forced to abandon his plans following an appeal for help from an old friend. The Duke of Clarence, Chaucer’s former guardian, has been found dead in his bed at his Suffolk castle, his bedroom door locked and bolted from the inside. The man who found him, Sir Richard Glanville, suspects foul play and has asked Chaucer to investigate.

On arrival at Clare Castle, Chaucer finds his childhood home rife with bitter rivalries, ill-advised love affairs and dangerous secrets. As he questions the castle’s inhabitants, it becomes clear that more than one member of the Duke’s household had reason to wish him ill. But who among them is a cold-hearted killer? It’s up to Chaucer, with his sharp wits and eye for detail, to root out the evil within.

My Review:

The Knight’s Tale is the first tale of Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, so it’s fitting that in this historical mystery, Chaucer himself is dragged away from his annual pilgrimage to Canterbury – his inspiration for the Tales – in order to involve himself in a Knight’s Tale of his very own, the first in a projected series that features Chaucer as the amateur “detective” investigating a mysterious death that might be murder.

As the story opens, Chaucer, just hitting 40 and feeling it hit back in more ways than one, finds himself headed to Castle Clare, where he was fostered, instead of on his annual pilgrimage as he had planned. His mentor, rescuer and earliest benefactor, Lionel of Antwerp, the Duke of Clarence, has died under mysterious circumstances. Chaucer’s old friend Sir Richard Glanville has come to fetch Chaucer from London in the hopes that the man will either allay his suspicions of murder or put some meat on their bones.

There are plenty of reasons to suspect foul play, and the late Duke had made more than enough enemies for anyone to wonder if he was sent to his reward a bit earlier than heaven or hell intended. As the oldest surviving son of the late King Edward III, there are also possible political connections and motives in every direction.

But the man died alone, in bed, in a locked room on an upper floor of the castle. No one could have snuck either in or out and left the key on the inside of the lock. It’s a puzzle that Glanville hopes Chaucer can solve – as he has solved other puzzling conundrums before, whether or not murder was involved.

In a world where 21st century forensics – or even the late 19th century forensic science of Sherlock Holmes – will not be invented for centuries, it’s up to Chaucer to use his brains and his gifts for drawing people out and observing their behavior afterwards to figure out first, if there was a crime and second, if so, who committed it.

All while being distracted by his memories of the place he once called home and the love he left behind there.

Escape Rating A-: After yesterday’s book, I found myself searching for something with a straightforward plot. Not that there aren’t plenty of twists and turns and red herrings in mystery, but the genre has features that a reader can always depend on. There’s a body, a detective (however amateur), and a perpetrator with means and motive to uncover. Mystery is, after all, the romance of justice served.

This story also takes place in a period that I’ve always loved, the Plantagenet era in England, so it had the feel of the familiar. Something that still held true even though the author played seriously fast and loose with time and place. But even when I became aware of the historical inconsistencies (that Lionel of Clarence died in Italy in 1368 not England in 1380), is just the tip of that iceberg), the setting and the characters still felt more than correct enough for the whole thing to carry me along as much as I’d hoped it would.

At the same time, it also reminded me very much of two historical mystery series that are set in the same time period and that include Geoffrey Chaucer not as the protagonist but as a secondary character. The Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series (start with Veil of Lies) by Jeri Westerson and the Owen Archer series (start with The Apothecary Rose) by Candace Robb also touch on the politics and court intrigues of the Plantagenet kings and their far flung families, friends, retainers and enemies. Meaning that if you like one of the three series you’ll probably like the others.

Like the other two series I mentioned, this first book in the Geoffrey Chaucer series does an excellent job of putting the reader into the period while managing successfully not to put the reader off by making the historic characters into grand historical personages, even though they were.

Because that’s a view we have looking back. In their own time and place, they were just people, and the story does a great job of humanizing them and making them feel, well, real. It’s not just Chaucer’s brain that’s on display here, but also his nostalgia for his youth and his mourning for its loss, as well as his occasional vain attempts to be the young man he once was. He’s human and funny and sad and sarcastic and occasionally even snarktastic by turns. It makes him a fascinating amateur detective.

One I hope to see more of in future books in this series. After all, The Knight’s Tale was the first of Chaucer’s 24 published Canterbury Tales, so I have high hopes for 23 more books in this series!