I do love a good historical mystery, and Fiona Watson has written an atmospheric and compelling one, set in the city of Berwick-upon-Tweed in the early 14th century.
In the year 1317, a young and pious squire named Benedict Russell is sent to the English-held garrison of Berwick-upon-Tweed, a town sitting on the border between Scotland and England. The town’s strategic position and relative wealth had previously resulted in a succession of raids, sieges and takeovers during centuries of war between these two countries. Three years earlier to Benedict’s arrival, the Scots, led by Robert the Bruce, had won a massive victory at the battle of Bannockburn and were raiding over the border. Edward II decided to send reinforcements to Berwick in case of an attack.
Benedict is learned – he can read and write – and is belittled by his fellow squires, who are more trained in the art of swordplay and warfare. He discovers through keen observation and a little diversion that the knight supplying food to the garrison is diverting money into his own accounts. Recognition of his ability gets him the task of discovering who murdered a beautiful young girl, one whom Benedict lusted after, and left her mutilated body outside the city’s walls. Benedict must decide if the murder was a crime of passion or one which involves a traitor or spy for the Scots.
The pace of discovery as Benedict works through various clues is deliberate, as would be for a sleuth of that time, but introduces the reader to the realities of life in the 14th century: the poverty and squalor set against the wealth of the ruling class, the hierarchy amongst the knights and their treatment of servants, and women as chattel to be used as pawns. The author draws on her knowledge of conditions of daily life, religious practices, practices of medieval punishment, food, drink, clothes, weapons, and social distinctions to put the reader firmly inside a city awaiting a siege, with all of the tension exacerbated by the murder.
This is also a coming-of-age story as Benedict slowly becomes a man and discovers his own reserves of strength and ability to love. The secondary characters are very well-drawn, from the knights and squires to the various townspeople Benedict comes to know, from apprentices to paupers. I was especially drawn to the murdered girl’s sister, who becomes a valuable companion to Benedict. She is afflicted with something I interpret as scoliosis, which makes her the butt of derision, but she has an intelligent and unusually perceptive mind trapped in her twisted body.
I very much appreciate that the author did not attempt to make the language of the day mock-medieval. She did write the story in the present tense, however, as is becoming common more recently. As a reader, I find it makes the story-telling more immediate but slows the pace of the story.
This is an excellent first fictional outing for a medieval scholar and I highly recommend this to mystery and historical fiction aficionados.
About the author:
Fiona Watson is a medieval historian and writer specializing in medieval warfare in particular, and Scottish history more generally. A former senior lecturer at the University of Stirling, she fronted a ten-part BBC television history of Scotland in 2001 and has made numerous radio programs, including a series on The Enlightenment and another using original sources to highlight the experience of war across the ages entitled Voices from the Front. She is currently a presenter of Making History on BBC Radio 4. Her books include Under the Hammer: Edward I and Scotland, 1286-1307 (1997), Scotland: A History 8000 BC – AD 2000 (2001) and Macbeth: A True Story (2010).
You can find Fiona Watson on her website: https://www.fantasticfiction.com/w/fiona-watson/
Dark Hunter can be found on Amazon: