On July 2, 2010, I posted a review of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. History is an avocation, especially English history, and Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series is so good that those of you who don’t like history, won’t realize you are reading it.
VEIL OF LIES: A MEDIEVAL NOIR is the first book in a series by Jeri Westerson. Crispin Guest is a man without a place in the rigidly stratified world of England in 1384. Crispin had been the protege of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, uncle of King Richard II. He had been knighted when he was 18 but an accusation of treason had cost his his lands, his money, and his knighthood. In need of an income, Crispin becomes the Tracker, the man who uses the fighting skills he learned as he moved through the ranks of Lancaster’s men. Nicholas Walcote, a successful cloth merchant, hires Crispin to follow his wife, whom he suspects of infidelity. Walcote is a strange man who locks doors as he enters and leaves, fearful of something or someone. Crispin discovers that Walcote was right in his belief that Philippa was meeting another man and in the morning he brings the information to Walcote Manor only to discover that Nicholas has been murdered, sealed in a room that had been locked from the inside. Philippa is devastated, claiming to have truly loved her husband. She hires Crispin to find the murderer and the plot takes off to include treason, espionage, murder, and a plot to destroy England’s position in Europe. And, of course, there is a mystery about a relic, a piece of cloth said to hold the image of Christ’s face. This image is truly miraculous because no man can tell a lie when in its presence. Westerson blends historical figures with fictional ones seamlessly.
During this period, relics abound in Europe, captured during the Crusades and returned to Europe as objects of reverence but also doing service as pieces in the political chess tournament that is politics. The cloth of truth, the Mandyllon, is one of a number of pieces of cloth or veil that surfaced in Europe, the validity of which was debated throughout the Middle Ages. VEIL OF LIES is an interesting look at a period that hasn’t figured in mystery fiction thus far. John of Gaunt was a Plantagenet, the most powerful family in England in the 14th century. His legitimate heirs include Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI. But his real importance lies in his relationship with Katherine Swynford, a married woman who became his mistress and, eventually, his wife. I became intrigued by this couple when I was in high school and read Anya Seton’s KATHERINE, a novel published in 1954. Katherine gave birth to four children who would be legitimized by Lancaster and through those children, the blood of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford runs through the English monarchy down to the present (albeit with a couple of twists). Their granddaughter was the mother of Edward IV and Richard III and their great-grandson, born into the Tudor branch of the family, was Henry VII who established the House of Tudor after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.( I am firmly in the Richard III camp; I don’t believe he killed his nephews. Shakespeare was playing politics to garner favor with Elizabeth I. He had to make Richard the villian and Elizabeth’s grandfather the hero who saved England from a murdering usurper).
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