John Gower, unsuccessful poet, blackmailer, and a reluctant investigator is not an easy man to like. A court official who knew London well and a good friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, he became closely associated with the nobility and even professed an acquaintance with King Richard II. His potential to be a fictional ‘trader of secrets’ in a city of shadows, fear and filth was compelling, and one seized upon with imagination, relish and consummate mastery by Bruce Holsinger, an award-winning scholar of the Middle Ages.
Last year’s stunning debut, A Burnable Book, introduced us to Gower, part-time poet and full-time dealer in the clandestine, operating in a kingdom ruled by a headstrong teenage king and haunted by the double threat of a French invasion and growing unrest amongst the barons. That Gower was really losing his sight by this time – famously describing himself as ‘senex et cecus’ (old and blind) – only adds pathos to these exhilarating, intelligent thrillers which brim with atmosphere, authenticity, danger, and mystery. (Read my review of A Burnable Book here)
For a man who lives metaphorically at least by sifting dirt, this story has a fitting opening. Sixteen bodies are found in a London midden. No one knows the dead men, the way they were killed or who could be responsible – and the authorities, both the City and the Crown, seem reluctant to pursue the matter. At the same time, however, they seem desperate to recapture a man and woman who have escaped from jail in Kent, where Gower’s friend Chaucer is a magistrate. Only one thing is clear. Whoever threw the bodies into the sewer knew they would be found – and was powerful enough not to care.
Soon we meet Stephen Marsh, the city’s most creative metalworker, who is recruited by the king’s armorer to come to the Tower and develop ever more lethal “handgonnes,” as the emerging weapons were called; they’re desperately needed to defend against the feared invasion. It becomes clear that handguns were used to kill the men, but the identity of the victims and their killers remains a mystery, despite Gower’s determined sleuthing.
Hampered by his ‘creeping blindness’ and challenged by deception and treachery on all sides, Gower battles to unearth the truth in an inquiry that takes him from the city’s labyrinthine slums to the port of Calais and on to the forests of Kent. As Gower strives to discover the source of the new guns and the identity of those who wielded them, he must risk everything to reveal the truth and prevent a more devastating massacre on London’s crowded streets.
London itself plays almost as much a part as do the characters. Real people like Chaucer, London Mayor Nicholas Brembre and various members of the aristocracy mix with fictional ones, to fill half a dozen different plots. Holsinger recreates the sights, sounds, and even the smells and combines them with a complex story of multiple murders, intrigue, pilgrimage, the law of sanctuary, religious hermits – and an amazingly accurate technical description of the development of a new weapon which was to change the face of war.
This is history and mystery in perfect unison, a gripping whodunit set amidst the grinding, grimy reality of everyday life in medieval London and a charismatic, thinking man’s detective driving all the action.
Historical fiction at its best.