15 June, 2009

The Sins of the Father, by Catherine Hanley. Book review.

Disclaimer: The Sins of the Father is published by Quaestor2000 who have also published my novel Paths of Exile, although I don’t think that has influenced my opinion.

Quaestor2000, 2009, ISBN 978-1-906836-11-5. 193 pages.

The Sins of the Father is set in May 1217 at Conisbrough Castle, Yorkshire, against the backdrop of the political turmoil at the end of King John’s reign. William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and his sister Isabelle are important secondary characters, and William Marshal (hero of The Greatest Knight) is a dominant off-stage presence. All the main characters are fictional.

Edwin Weaver, son of the bailiff at Conisbrough, is just reaching adulthood. Unpopular King John has recently died, and a faction of the English barons has proclaimed John’s nine-year-old son Henry as King, with the formidable William Marshal as Regent. This presents something of a political dilemma to the nobles who had previously rebelled against John and invited Prince Louis of France to be king. Do they support Prince Louis and risk William Marshal’s wrath, or do they change sides, join William Marshal’s campaign against Louis and risk being beaten by Louis who controls much of eastern England? William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, has decided to switch sides and is mustering troops at his castle of Conisbrough to join the siege of Lincoln, which he hopes will convince William Marshal of his loyalty. Edwin, standing in as bailiff for his dying father, is helping to organise the logistics and never expects these great affairs of state to impinge on his own unremarkable life. But when the Earl of Sheffield, a supporter of the new young king, is murdered at Conisbrough, William de Warenne fears that he will be implicated in the crime and accused of treason unless he can find the murderer before they set out to join the Marshal. The task falls to the acting bailiff of Conisbrough, Edwin Weaver. Can the inexperienced Edwin solve the mystery and bring the murderer to justice in time?

This is a medieval murder mystery in the classic mould. A crime is committed, in a confined place with a constrained group of people, and the fictional detective (and, by extension, the reader) has to spot the clues and deduce the solution. As Edwin Weaver is clever but young and inexperienced, he has to call on help from Warenne’s squires, the military veteran in charge of the castle, the estate steward and even his dying father. This makes the investigation something of a team effort. It is also a coming-of-age story for Edwin, as he has to take decisions and responsibility and learns a great many things he would probably rather not have known about the nobility and about human nature in general.

The plot is well constructed with no obvious holes or loose ends. A neat trail of red herrings diverts the reader’s attention away from the real culprit almost until the final denouement, and when revealed the murderer and the motivation are credible for the time and for the characters involved. Some of the clues are handed to Edwin on a plate, either by his helpers or by sheer luck, but given his inexperience it would be difficult for him to solve the mystery any other way. It will be interesting to see if he has to do more of the detecting as the series develops.

As well as the mystery, The Sins of the Father paints a detailed portrait of life in early thirteenth-century England. As the bailiff’s son and stand-in, Edwin belongs to the common people but has to deal with the nobility, so he is an ideal character to show the reader all classes of society and the sharp social divisions between them. I say “class”, but “caste” might be more appropriate given the rigidity of the social divisions. Everyone’s place in society is determined by their father’s social position, with little if any scope for change and very little interaction between the classes. Edwin is horrified when he has to give orders to a noble squire who has been assigned to help him with the investigation, and a noble page is stunned to realise that a poor boy of about his own age could actually go short of food. Details such as the serving of dinner in the great hall, the upheaval caused by having to accommodate unexpected visitors of high rank, and the duties of a lord’s squire are all lovingly described.

Most of the characters are decent, likeable people, albeit with their fair share of human flaws. Only the fictional Earl of Sheffield, his brother and one of their squires are thoroughly unpleasant, three weasels who deserve each other. Edwin in particular is thoughtful and reflective, with potential for further development in the future. There is clearly scope for a sequel (or several sequels), even though the present mystery is solved at the end of the book. A useful historical note discusses some of the history behind the novel, and sets out the liberties taken and the characters invented.

Enjoyable murder mystery in an authentic setting.


Steven Till said...

How do you feel the novel compares to other medieval mystery novels in terms of historical details? Were there any gross inaccuracies that you noticed?

Carla said...

No, none at all. Bear in mind that I'm not an expert on the High Middle Ages so I'm not really qualified to comment on accuracy, but I noticed many things that I know to be accurate and nothing that I know to be inaccurate, if that makes any sense. The author is an academic working on the Middle Ages, so I would expect that she knows her stuff, and that's certainly the impression the book gave me.

Steven Till said...

It does make sense. Sometimes, I'm skeptical about the medieval murder mysteries. Thanks, Carla.

Susan Higginbotham said...

That sounds interesting! Thanks for the review.

Annis said...

Thanks for bringing this one to my attention, Carla. I've been hanging out for a good medieval mystery after the disappointing Ariana Franklin "Serpent's Tale/Death Maze". I did enjoy Karen Maitland's "Company of Liars", though. and I had a bit of fun using the list of Anglo-Saxon runes you gave me earlier to work out the message on the cover's wolf's tongue :)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thanks for the review Carla. I may read this at some point.
Just to say though, that a bailiff of a castle such as Conisbrough would have been of aristocratic Norman descent at this time.
William Marshal issued an open general amnesty following John's death. It was always his hope that men would return to the fold and he would have harboured every expectation of de Warenne doing so, since he was a reluctant rebel to begin with and also kin to the young king Henry. He was wooing such men, not threatening them.

Carla said...

Susan - glad you found the review interesting.

Annis - I haven't read the Ariana Franklin books but have read some hair-curling things about them... Company of Liars is on my list after your comments, but I haven't got to it yet. I had a go at transliterating the runes but I'm not sure I got the right solution - I shall have to read the book to find out :-)

Steven - See Elizabeth Chadwick's comment. I told you I wasn't an expert on the Middle Ages :-)

Elizabeth - I take your word for the historical detail. Re the politics, I simplified it somewhat in the review, because the political situation is connected with the mystery and it's always difficult to know what to say without giving too much away. If I say that there's something else going on that gives Warenne cause for concern, does that help? If/when you read the book, I'll be interested in your opinion!

Steven Till said...

I read Elizabeth's comment. Thanks, Elizabeth.

Rick said...

I'm curious about where this fits in the mystery spectrum. The fact that a lot of the potential suspects wear swords argues against 'English cozy,' while a young protagonist argues against hardboiled. Lack of police rules out a police procedural. :-)

Related is the investigative style - deductive logic a la Sherlock, gumshoe style questioning servants and hookers, etc., etc.

Carla said...

Don't ask me. I never have understood all the different flavours of mystery. It relies on deductive logic (which William of Occam would have been okay with) to identify the truth in pursuit of justice. In style I suppose it's a little like Brother Cadfael, except that Cadfael would be completely at home questioning a hooker, whereas Edwin Weaver would likely have died of embarrassment on the spot :-) Having such an inexperienced protagonist as the detective struck me as unusual, and it was quite interesting to see a sort of team effort rather than the more usual lone detective or team of two.

Rick said...

You hit on - as I did not - the quite unusual thing that made me ask about the mystery aspect instead of the historical setting, namely a young and inexperienced detective. Brother Cadfael is not Sam Spade in a cowl, but his worldly wise background is emphasized. In one way or another that seems typical of all the mystery subgenres.

Annis said...

If you do read "Company of Liars" sometime, Carla, the runes will definitely make sense.

One set of medieval mysteries which I enjoy is Bermard Knight's Crowner John" series. Crowner John is one of the first coroners ( the creation of the post was another one of Richard the Lionheart's money-making schemes).

The stories revolve around the cases he has to deal with, and each one covers a differnt aspect of Englsh society. Lots of interesting detail. Bernard Knight was himself a coroner.

Carla said...

Rick - often there's a pairing between an old (in experience if not in years) hand who's seen it all and a partner who's young, naive, a bit dim or in some way much less worldly wise than the detective. In a way this is the best of both worlds; the inexperienced partner (and by extension the reader) can be the recipient of explanations without falling into 'As you know, Bob', and the old hand has so much arcane expertise (Sherlock Holmes was an expert on absolutely everything) that it's credible when (s)he comes up with the solution on the last page. Cadfael has seen most of the known world, lived in a different culture, dealt with violence on a daily basis, is an expert on drugs, poisons and plants in general, and has sufficient curiosity to have acquired a broad understanding of human behaviour from paupers to kings. It's quite credible for Cadfael to look at a wound and know what kind of knife made it, or to look at some leaf fragments clutched in a dead man's hand and know where that plant grows and therefore where the murder happened. Solving a mystery without that sort of expertise is a challenge, both for the protagonist and (I guess) for the writer. I imagine that underlies the way that rather a lot of the clues fall into Edwin's lap in the book. It's quite interesting to see a mystery as a team effort (in a way, a bit like modern police practice?), though I think it would pall after a while. It will be interesting to see how the character develops if it turns into a series. One problem with the detective who's already seen and done it all is that there's not much scope for character development. (Another problem is that they can be insufferable know-it-alls).

Annis - I heard a radio adaptation of one of the Crowner John mysteries a while back. I thought it was all right but not brilliant - good on the characters and setting, rather too slight on the mystery and with too many coincidences for my taste. I wondered at the time if there might be more substance in the novels that had been lost in the adaptation, or perhaps it was one of the weaker novels?

Rick said...

The original classic instance of the sidekick being Dr. Watson. And traditionally there hasn't been much character development of mystery protagonists, no 'long arc.' Which is why Arthur Conan Doyle threw Sherlock Holmes over Reichenbach Falls, to no avail. :-)

Did this book feel like the possible launch of a mystery series, or a historical novel that happened to turn on a mystery?

Stepping away from the mystery angle, William Marshall had an extraordinary career, about which I know far too little.

Carla said...

Who wasn't as dim as some of the film portrayals have made him, but certainly fulfilled the role of being surprised along with the reader. Conan Doyle tried one or two stories with Holmes as the narrator, but they were a small minority and for a good reason.

It felt like the start of a series. The ending resolves all the threads in the current plot, but could be the start of a new adventure, and I can see potential for development in the main character. There's also plenty of interesting politics going on at the time - I shall be very surprised if there can't be a mystery constructed on the back of the siege of Lincoln, for example. The author's website says she is writing a sequel.

You could do much worse than read Elizabeth Chadwick's three Marshal novels. She does an excellent job of creating William Marshal and his father John, and the rest of the family, as real people. In chronological order they are A Place Beyond Courage (John Marshal, including the famous 'hammers and anvils' story), The Greatest Knight (William Marshal's youth and early middle age) and The Scarlet Lion (rest of William Marshal's life). I've reviewed The Greatest Knight (see link in original post) and will review the others in due course. I think they are due for publication on your side of the Pond fairly soon.

Rick said...

Watson was an MD after all, which a century ago had much the connotation that 'scientist' does now. Making him Holmes' foil emphasized how brilliant Holmes was.

I'll keep the Marshall/Chadwick recommendation in mind!

Annis said...

The "Crowner John" mysteries are more in the comfortably predictable style of Ellis Peters' "Cadfael" series. Crowner John has his little group of sidekicks, and the familiarity of their lives and relationships are as much a part of the stories as the mysteries. They're entertaining rather than brilliant. I'd love to see a medieval mystery series with the atmosphere and depth of characterisation of C.J. Sansom's Tudor mysteries featuring Matthew Shardlake.

Carla said...

Annis - Yes, so would I. The Shardlake novels are impressive.

Catherine Hanley said...

Hi Carla,

Thanks for this review and I'm glad you liked the book! You've raised some really perceptive points about Edwin and how he's going to develop in the future, and yes, a sequel (and hopefully more) is planned.

If I may, though, I have to take issue with Elizabeth Chadwick's comment re. bailiffs. There is plenty of research available which shows that the word 'bailiff' could be used for a number of different types of office; there is also little empirical evidence to suggest that the 'bailiff' of a country estate (i.e. someone who was fixed in the locality rather than being a member of the lord's itinerant household) had to be a member of the aristocracy.

For a solid (if somewhat dense) account of the structure of village life, see "The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages" (vol. 2 for the relevant period); for a more readable analysis I'd recommend Robert Bartlett's "England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225".

Carla said...

Hello Catherine and welcome. Many thanks for stopping by, and for your comments on the medieval bailiff. I'm glad you liked the review and look forward to reading more in the future.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hello Catherine,
Thank you for answering. I have both these books on my research shelf. Obviously I will have to read the novel and see for myself. My researches have shown that bailiffs were of the aristocracy, but I am sure there is plenty of room to debate and respectfully differ.

Catherine Hanley said...

Oh absolutely - these things are always open to interpretation, no matter how many primary or secondary sources one has read (especially given that the sources often contradict each other ...) Besides, if we all wrote the same thing it would be very dull for the reader!