I have previously been much enamoured of Gregory’s Mathew Bartholomew series set in mid 14th century Cambridge, but I hadn’t yet come across Thomas Chaloner. The Butcher of Smithfield is apparently the third Chaloner novel, and I’m sorry to have missed the first two as Chaloner is an engaging character. Unlike Bartholomew who was a doctor, Chaloner is a Restoration spy. This is a period I am not hugely familiar with, but I have read several Restoration set mysteries over the last few years e.g. Parliament House by Edward Marston and this is far superior.
After four months away on a special mission, Chaloner returns to a London slowly sinking into the mire, both literally and figuratively. It never stops raining, and shady characters abound. One of these, who runs a protection racket centred on Smithfield market has gone and got himself murdered… perhaps, although the general assumption is that he has died from a surfeit of cucumbers. Chaloner’s boss, the Lord Chancellor wants him to investigate, but he’s not keen, wanting to find out why a friend needed to speak to him urgently but then died. Strangely, this friend also seems to have died from too many cucumbers. The chase begins, galloping us along to a conclusion that neatly links everything with a twist I certainly never guessed, although I was near.
Chaloner even has a blog!
Susanna Gregory on Wikipedia
I must have been about ten or eleven when I first read this novel; it scared me silly then, and it’s still very powerful all these years later. In fact, on re-reading it now, I suspect the brooding atmosphere and dank landscape have influenced my own writing. The dripping trees and bare branches of the wood surrounding the barrow and the decaying backstreets of the un-named city are reminiscent of Alan Garner (another childhood favourite), and Gordon clearly draws on similar folklore.
On a school trip to a dark age barrow, the three protagonists, Jonquil, Arf and Bill find part of an ancient belt buckle. This is the trigger for the appearance of the terrifying leather men, bent on recovering the buckle. They discover that if it is reunited with its other half it may be used for great evil or great good. Its original owner wants it back, and guess what he would use it for.
Gordon is a masterful storyteller, whose effortless prose style convinces the reader of the most unlikely scenarios. I never found any other novels by him, as a teenager, but I see from the bibliography below that he has produced a regular output for young adults, since his debut with TGUTS in the late sixties.
John Gordon, a bibliography
Interview in Ghosts and Scholars
Reviews by young people
This is that rare historical whodunnit – one which manages to have a female protagonist who really isn’t just a modern woman in fancy dress. It was a deserved winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award.
The mistress of the art of death of the title is Adelia Aguilar, a medieval pathologist from Salerno. This is perfectly plausible as the Salerno medical school in 12th century when this novel is set, accepted women.
Children are being murdered in Cambridge and the local population have fixed on the obvious culprits, the local Jews. Cash-strapped Henry II is non too pleased as the Jews are responsible for generating much of his revenue. He sends to Salerno for assistance which comes in the reluctant form of Dr Aguilar who must then overcome local prejudice to identify the real killer.
This well written and pacey thriller had me turning the pages as fast as I could read them without once going near my historical howler button. Impeccable research, engaging characters and a deft plot make this a novel well worth reading.
Announcement of Franklin’s CWA win