Blood Lance by Jeri Westerson
Blood Lance by Jeri Westerson (Minotaur Books, 2012) is the fifth in the Crispin Guest historical mystery series. We’re off in time back to 1386. In Latin this was the medium aevum or Mediaeval Period which, because of its length, has been divided into different periods. For me, 1386 is in the Late Middle Ages, i.e. from around 1300 to 1485. King Richard II had been crowned in 1377, survived the Peasants Revolt and married in 1383 — Anne of Bohemia dying in 1384 without producing children. This novel finds the King caught up in tensions at the Court. John of Gaunt and most of the knights are in Spain although his son, Henry Bollingbroke, remains at Court. The are the usual stresses because uncertainty over the relationship with France and the mixed signals over taxation.
Against this background, our hero is accidentally in the right place to see someone fall from London Bridge into the Thames. Being of a heroic disposition, he dives in only to find the man dead. He’s initially prepared to believe the local opinion that this was a suicide but, when he takes a moment to reflect, he realises the man did not struggle as he fell. When he examines the body he confirms the probability of a murder. Final proof comes when he examines the room from which he was thrown. There’s clear evidence of a fight and the body being dragged across the floor to the window.
What follows is a highly entertaining mystery cum adventure story. Crispin Guest is a knight who chose the wrong political faction when King Edward III died in 1377. He only escaped with his life because of influence brought to bear by John of Gaunt. He now operates as a semi-official investigator, sometimes working for the Sheriffs or other high-placed officials to find missing/lost property or to identify criminals. He has a young apprentice, Jack Tucker, who in some ways proves less gullible than his master. In his defence, Crispin is suffering from a high fever during the early part of the book and so is not quite fully engaged when he first meets key people. This leads him to begin with the wrong impressions and, as we all know, once rooted, prejudices are difficult to shake off.
The balance between the historical information and the action is well managed. I’m not at my best with this period of English history but, so far as I can judge, this comes across as being credible. More contentious is the decision to deal with the issue of PTSD in knights. We’re all familiar with the notion that knights are men of honour. They swear oaths to one another and are punctilious in executing every last element promised. This also reflects a practical necessity on the battlefield. If you’re standing side-by-side with a fellow knight, you want to know you can rely on him to fight to the best of his ability until he can no longer stand unaided. If trust was lost, the vanguard would never advance confidently towards the enemy. Hence knights who displayed symptoms of cowardice would be weeded out and, if they could not convince their brothers-in-arms they were reliable, they would be given trial (usually by battle which would ensure their ignominious deaths).
The other thread of interest is the role of relics in a deeply religious community that believes in supernatural phenomena associated with these preserved objects and body parts. This time we’re looking at the so-called Spear of Longinus — the spear used by a centurion to piece the side of Jesus while on the cross. Because it’s covered in the blood of Christ, anyone holding the spear is said to become invulnerable. Whether true or not, the mythology of the blade makes it of “interest” to all the powerful men of Europe. In this case, a transaction designed to place the blade in “safe hands” is subverted by a knight tainted with the allegation of cowardice. If this person could secure possession, he would restore his honour both in court and on the battlefield. The man at the heart of the deal being brokered is the one who involuntarily decides to take a bath in the Thames. This leaves Crispin Guest with the increasingly dangerous task of deciding which of the many would have the opportunity to steal the blade.
There’s some nice misdirection from the author in the way we see each of the individuals involved. With the hero suffering from an increasingly feverish cold, he’s distracted when he should be focused. Although he’s not really an unreliable narrator — that would be a little problematic when writing a murder mystery — there’s uncertainty until the end as to precisely what he’s not seeing. So although I guessed quite early on where the Spear would be found, I was pleasantly surprised by identity of the murderer. It’s perfectly reasonable when you look back but perfectly hidden in plain sight.
I’m prepared to accept the fighting as a necessary part of who the hero is. Honour does sometimes persuade people to engage in dangerous activities. Although I think the book would probably have been as strong without it, it does provide a different quality of adventure about the entire enterprise. On the whole, Blood Lance is very good of its type.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.