Wed 23 Jan 2013
MARGARET FRAZER – The Bastard’s Tale. Berkley Prime Crime, hardcover, January 2003; paperback, January 2004.
This is the twelfth in Frazer’s ongoing series of medieval mysteries, all with Dame Frevisse as the leading character, and given that her primary residence is the nunnery at St. Frideswide’s, England, it’s not easy to say how she’s happened to become involved in as many cases of murder and intrigue as this. And if you don’t know, I’m not the one who’s going to be able to tell you – this is the first of her adventures I’ve happened to read – but it’s also not difficult to realize that in that particular time and place of the world, death came both more easily and more often.
So given the controls of a time-traveling machine, I’d not inclined to be heading back to this particular era any time soon, but in fiction, it’s fine, and so is the book. If you like historical mysteries, you shouldn’t allow Frazer’s series slip by you for as long as I did. It’s my error, all the way.
The year is 1447, the 25th year of reign of Henry VI’s, and as I gathered from the story, at the time he was only just over the same age himself. (Let me insert a confession here, if I may. I obviously was not paying close enough attention back in high school. History classes barely caught my awareness level, especially British history, and it’s starting to show.)
The character described in the title is Arteys, the illegitimate son of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, and the Henry’s “well-beloved uncle” — although the king, under the influence of the marquis (formerly earl, later duke) of Suffolk, has a strange way of showing it. To the contrary, he has recently accused Gloucester’s wife, Lady Eleanor, of witchcraft and trundled her off to prison, not an ideal way to keep peace in the family.
While there is eventually a murder in this novel, or at least an attempt, there is very little question of who ordered it. There are a few pages of investigative activity on the part of Frevisse and the two others assisting her: Joliffe, a man of many past roles, now an actor who is part of a troupe entertaining the king’s entourage; and the singularly non-ambitious but exceedingly observant Bishop Pecock. Overall, though, the amount of actual detective work going on is minimal. It is the intrigue, the constantly shifting of alliances for the power behind the throne that the story is about, along with the characters that Frazer brings so strongly to life.
And she somehow does it by keeping the major players, those known to history, more or less in the background. What Frazer does very nicely is to describe events from the point of view of the common people, who sense as they do that something’s going on, but who have as much effect on the day’s events as a butterfly in a snowstorm. Frazer’s focus is on everyday activities, but she also manages to keep the big picture well illuminated — and what’s more, she makes it look easy. There is the constant feeling that powerful forces are hard at work here.
The link between the two worlds is Dame Frevisse, who walks in both of them. Somehow she’s comfortable both in her life as a nun and in the confidence of the aspiring Suffolk’s wife, who is also her cousin.
In the grand scheme of things, Frazer is limited to and restricted by actual events. She can’t change history, which goes without saying, but if she were to have followed the usual conventions of story-telling, it’s easy to see how the story might have come out quite differently. Arteys, for example, when his demanding role in the story is over, disappears far too soon – but precisely as he did in the annals of history — as much as she or the reader might wish otherwise. (The reader, perhaps, even more so.)
Looking over the notes I made as I was reading, I see that I said to myself “very good” several times. I’ll let that be the summary as well. Very good. Very, very good.
PostScript: Margaret Frazer began as the joint pseudonym of Mary Monica Pulver (a.k.a. Margaret Ferriss) and Gail Frazer, but after the first six in the series, it’s the latter who’s been writing them alone, including this one. The novels also started out as paperback originals, but they’ve apparently done so well that they’ve switched to coming out in hardcover first.
[UPDATE] 01-23-13. There are now apparently 22 books in the Dame Frevisse series, plus seven solo appearances by Joliffe the Player, and three novels featuring Bishop Pecock. Unfortunately, as much as I liked this one, it’s still the only one of all of Frazer’s long list of titles that I’ve managed to read.