In Devon, 1316, an unpopular villager is found burned to death inside his house. Newly appointed bailiff Simon Puttock seems happy to accept that it was an accident but the newly returned lord of the manor, Sir Baldwin Furnshill, seems to think that it was something more. When a group of monks is set upon and their abbot is found burned at the stake, Puttock realises that there is more to both crimes than first appeared. But with a troop of bandits – “trail bastons” – preying on local travellers as well, will he be able to bring the culprits to justice?
As I mentioned in my review of The Tolls of Death, this series is currently thirty-strong and still going. I enjoyed that book, although I did have reservations about the mystery, and so I thought I’d go back to the beginning. This was also prompted by a comment by the author on my review of Bernard Knight’s The Sanctuary Seeker, where Michael Jecks mentioned that he made a point of changing his style from book to book, not something that I’d overtly noted in the other series that I follow. So a quick trip to Abebooks and I’m furnished with the first three books in the series. So, was it a worthwhile investment?
Well, they were 61p each, so they’d have to be pretty rubbish not to be worth that. I’m glad to say though, on the strength of this one, that it was £1.83 well spent.
The style of this one is interesting. Most historical mysteries from my experience are, at their heart, either an attempt at a classic mystery or an adventure with an unknown killer. This seems more like a police procedural novel, albeit set in the early 14th century. Puttock is tasked with investigating the crime, he has a small team around him, and he resolves the mysteries more by blunt force than sparkling deductions – although to be fair, he doesn’t need the bad guy to confess before he puts two and two together as in a recent book I reviewed. Puttock isn’t stupid – he’s a practical man – and this is a good showcase for his character and background.
Anyone who knows anything about the series of novels knows that as the series progresses, Puttock and Furnshill are a team, but here, Furnshill is very much in the background. Indeed, the blurb on the back of the book advertises that “Simon Puttock will return in…”, rather than the pair of them. There is a plot reason for this, so well done blurb writers, but to say any more would risk spoiling things. By concentrating on Puttock here, and, I presume, Furnshill in later books, it gives Jecks a chance to develop their characters in more detail.
From the title, you can tell the story involves, in one way or another, the order of the Templars, a Christian military order that was officially disbanded and excommunicated by the Pope in 1312 – mainly due to pressure from King Philip of France who was owed money by them. This is also the background for The Cup of Ghosts by Paul Doherty, but while that book takes place at the heart of the action, in Philip and Edward’s respective courts, here we see the after-effects, at least from some characters’ points of view. It’s one of the eras of history that we never get taught in this country and it’s great to see another point of view on the persecution.
So, to sum up – a very enjoyable read. The mystery isn’t fantastic – one part is much stronger than the other and I can see some people viewing the search for the trail bastons as a diversion from the main plot – but it’s a very strong first novel in a series. Certainly enough to keep me coming back for more.
And if you need a bit more background, here’s Michael himself talking about the background to the book.