The Harlot’s Tale by Sam Thomas
The Harlot’s Tale by Sam Thomas (Minotaur Books, 2014) provokes me into more idle speculation about the nature of the experience when reading historical fiction. Here’s a perfectly respectable book set in 1645 during the English Civil Wars. It describes seventeenth century York as the local government switches from Royalist to Parliamentarian. This comes as something of a shock to many of the citizens given the enthusiasm with which those of a more religious persuasion seek to impose their morality on the ungodly. However, no matter who’s in charge, one feature of life in particular does not stop. Pregnancies must come to term and the services of a midwife are required to give the child the best chance of being born alive. Of course the other factor of life that never stops comes some nine months before the births but, more often than not, some degree of hypocrisy covers up the male contributor’s identity if it was out of wedlock. Anyway, I’ll come back to the plot in a moment.
As you can imagine, considerable investment of time and effort is needed to produce a full-length book set in one of England’s great cities. So my speculation is whether I would have enjoyed the book more if it had been written in British English. Now let’s be clear. I’ve no particular axe to grind when it comes to the merits of either form of English. And I concede the idea of an author actually adopting seventeenth century vocabulary and syntax would leave all readers gasping for breath, forsooth. But if an author is holding out the words in a first-person narrative as being thought and spoken by a person born and bred on English soil, should those words not be in British English? American readers are worldly and cosmopolitan. Surely, they could cope with British English if it was presented to them. Or is there a prejudice among American readers against British English such that it would seriously damage the commercial prospects of a novel if it was offered for sale in British English? Put the other way around, should I want to write a novel set in, say, Las Vegas, should it be written in American English?
Of course, this is rather by the way because it distracts us from considering the merits of the book as written, rather than how it might otherwise have been written if writing style had been on anyone’s radar, forsooth. So back to the book itself, egad! I learned a lot about the early practice of midwifery. Curiously these Brits seem to have forgotten how to do a Caesarian — those Romans did a poor job of transferring medical know-how (although the method is described in Irish oral history and written text dating from the twelfth century). This leaves it open to two of the lead characters to have a moral epiphany during one birth which is not uncontrived, but highlights the question about C-sections. I suppose the reason for its abandonment was the high mortality rate among the women. This midwife is focused on saving the lives of the mothers so this might explain her attitude to the best surgical approach. Since the author is a professional historian, I’m prepared to accept he knows his stuff and therefore all the medical background here is accurate. Knowing York, the street names are still the same. The politicisation of religion also strikes me as accurate for the time. But the murder plot using this setting is rather modern in style.
Thematically, we have Hellfire preaching and aggressive tactics from law enforcement to impose a new code of morality. It’s therefore not wholly surprising the motive of the serial killer should be religious in the broadest sense of the word. He or she is out to punish the ungodly for their sins, particularly fornication with a prostitute and/or adultery. In spirit, this book is not unlike Revelation by C J Sansom which is set in 1543 and has a serial killer select his/her victims based on prophesies in the Book of Revelation. Like Sansom who has qualifications both as a lawyer and a historian, Thomas has the killer(s) leaving biblical references at the crime scenes. Like Se7en (1995), these murders are somewhat gore-splattered. Unfortunately, although the series characters are well-drawn, the development of the mystery is strangely muted since we’re immediately told the pool of suspects is limited to one small group of newcomers plus one local. I understand it’s inconvenient to formulate a plot which has to search for possible suspects, but that’s how the investigative process works in the real world. Just having the plot hang on the tried and trusted, “It’s the newcomers wot dun it!” is a little unimaginative.
So The Harlot’s Tale is very interesting on the English Civil War and medical history, but the mystery plot is underwhelming. As written, the prose zips along and delivers an interesting first-person woman protagonist who does her best to hold the line in difficult circumstances. This leaves the book slightly above average for historical mystery so long as you don’t mind short but mildly graphic descriptions of what happens to the bodies.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.