The Tolls of Death by Michael Jecks

In the summer of 1323, during the reign of Edward II, a young woman Athelina is found hanged alongside the dead bodies of her two young children. The village of Cardinham in Cornwall soon becomes a dangerous place as more people die and the rivalry between the villagers and the nobles in the castle threatens to boil over.

Arriving on the scene is Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the King’s Peace and his friend Bailiff Simon Puttock, freshly returned from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Despite being in a rush to return to their families, they feel duty bound to investigate the murders.

This is the seventeenth Furnshill and Puttock book, out of a series currently numbering thirty. Oh, and to clarify for my regular readers – Michael Jecks is NOT a Paul Doherty alias!

I’ve read three of the early books in the series in the distant past – no idea which ones, but I enjoyed the first two as “proper mysteries” but the third, if memory serves, wasn’t even a mystery. Anyway, I figured it was time to look at some of the other writers of medieval detective fiction and Jecks seemed the primary one to visit first, not least as he sets his books almost within about 30 years of the Hugh Corbett series.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter – see the link on the right – may have noticed a couple of whinges about this book. To be absolutely fair, I’ve been snowed under with work and flu the last couple of weeks and the first section of this book took a while to get through.

Jecks is determined to paint a complete picture of all of the characters in the book, of which there are quite a few – bonus points for the cast list at the start, although I found myself checking who was who more often than I should, but that might be me. As such, we get a lot of character and scene-setting chapters before much happens. It’s noticeable that we hear that Athelina is dead (from the POV of a rat – sort of) about three chapters before anyone finds the body. Some people will find this essential atmospheric build-up – it’s certainly well-done – but to this reader, it was a bit too much. It felt a bit like I was in a medieval episode of Eastenders. Even after Furnshill and Puttock turn up, the story only kicks up a gear when the second(?) murder takes place.

Once this happens, the book does improve and the action becomes more urgent. There is a backdrop to the action concerning the escape of Sir Roger Mortimer – arch-rival of Edward II – from the Tower of London which adds some historical background but really has little to do with the story, apart from to introduce a red-herring for about two pages.

The murderer is a genuine surprise – I seriously doubt anyone would work it out – but I’m not sure Jecks should be praised too highly here.

Let me explain. As I see it, there are two schools of classic detective story – the one where everything is from the point of view of the sleuths and the one where we get inside everyone’s heads. The second has a massive problem with the whodunnit element as you need a reason for the murderer to be thinking non-murdery things when we see his point of view – either that, or you give away the murderer by being the one character we don’t get to hear from. Well, thankfully Jecks steers away from the second option, but the reason that the murderer doesn’t give themselves away is by far the easiest way out. There is some behaviour that is completely contrary to that character being the murderer which is excused by the same rationale and, for me at least, it seemed like at best a cop-out and at worst a cheat.

I do think I’ll be back for this series – as I said, I enjoyed some of the others in the series once upon a time, and it does seem that the historical backdrop will be kicking off as Mortimer starts his revolution in the following books – it will be a nice contrast to the Mathilde of Westminster series, set in the early reign of Edward II.

So, overall, well-written if a bit slow, with a genuine attempt to surprise the reader, although with a bit of a cheat thrown in. Cautiously recommended, but you might want to check out a different volume in the series first.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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8 Responses to The Tolls of Death by Michael Jecks

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  7. Just re-read this review – boy, I must have been grumpy when I wrote this. This really wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be – I might re-review it when I reach it as I do the series in order.

  8. Pingback: Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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