Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Corpse at St. Andrew's Chapel Review

A Corpse at St Andrew's Chapel by Mel Starr

From the back of the book:

Alan, the beadle of the medieval manor of Bampton, had gone out at dusk to seek those who might violate curfew. When, the following morning, he had not returned home, his young wife Matilda sought out Master Hugh de Singleton, surgeon and bailiff if the manor.

Two days later Alan's corpse was discovered in the hedge, at the side of the track to St Andrew's Chapel. His throat had been torn out - his head was half severed from his body - and his face, hands and forearms were lacerated with deep scratches.

Master Hugh, meeting Hubert the coroner at the scene, listened carefully to the coroner's surmise that a wolf had caused the great wound. And yet... of so, why was there so little blood?

This is a light fast book that is about the likeable surgeon and bailiff Hugh de Singleton. Hugh seems to be a forward thinker. He tells you about the procedures he performs while curing various injuries and how his thoughts differ from what was then the norm. It gives the reader a good, but not overbearing, look at the state of medicine at the time. He also tends to wax philosophic about religious matters. It is a rather prevalent theme in the book and he talks about it a lot. He is not preachy but more conversational in a ‘here’s what I think about this, don’t tell the bishop’ sort of way. And once again his ideas do not always conform to what the church would call the norm. But he is just sharing his thoughts and ponderings with us, not telling us what to think. And since religion and the church play a role in the everyday life of the people it is really not surprising to find that Hugh thinks about it so much. Hugh has a wit and a self deprecating humor that make him a fun character to get to know. And Starr fills the account with little facts from the everyday life of the people so that the setting comes to life. You hear about a widow having to worry about getting her dead husband’s shoes back because they are worth more than she can afford to lose and about how the plague has ravaged the country and the people. You learn how the religious observances affect their daily lives and how having food all through the winter was a problem. And you hear a lot about eating. This is a first person account so the things that are important to Hugh and that are in the forefront of his mind get mentioned most. And one of those things is food. He tells you what every meal he eats consists of. He also mentions often that people are not usually happy to see him and talks about wanting a wife to the point of annoyance. It does tell you something about Hugh but I do wish he wouldn’t talk about it so much. This is a mystery, but only because someone happens to get killed and it is Hugh’s job to find the murderer. You do not get a list of clues that you can follow to the logical conclusion. Hugh is telling his story after the fact and he will tell you everything he sees but he will also tell you which parts turn out to be important in the future or add something that he didn’t know until later. And when you do find out what happened it sort of comes out of nowhere. And Hugh is not a detective who reasons everything out and expertly follows logic to the conclusion of his investigation. He is a little out of his field with murder mysteries. And it is often clear that he really doesn’t know what he is doing. He has all these carefully laid plans that usually come to not, except that he gets clunked on the head with something. He lucks into most of the information that he gets by being in the right place at the right time instead of deducing anything. These are not complaints about the book but I do think that they make it more about Hugh than it is about the murder of poor Alan the Beadle. The book is filled with interesting characters and period details and a glossary to help you on your way. If you enjoy historical fiction this would be one you might want to give a try.

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