Wednesday, 8 December 1999
Michael Jecks: The Leper's Return (1998)
Review number: 400
The treatment of lepers in the medieval period is something distasteful to a modern viewpoint, an example of extreme inhumanity driven by fear. It is a part of our history which makes the homophobia sparked by AIDS pale into insignificance (though parallels can be drawn); and it went on for hundreds of years. Such a terrible disease, not just incurable (at the time), but bringing horrific deformity, must have been (they thought) a punishment from God, a judgement for some terrible sin. It didn't take much imagination to make the assumption that lepers were monsters of depravity. This provided the excuse for persecution, as the supposed extreme infectiousness of the disease provided the excuse for making lepers into outcasts.
The official attitude of the church was slightly different, and it was thought to be a duty to provide some sort of shelter, in the form of leper hospitals. These were often pretty squalid, and little care and treatment could be provided. They also formed focal points for persecution, and massacres of lepers are recorded in times of misfortune, alongside persecution of Jews.
This is a sombre subject for a crime novel, and is reasonably well handled by Jecks. It is the attempts to relieve the mood with low comedy that are the biggest failures - a clumsy dog and its battle with a tyrannical maidservant. In the end, they (and the romantic subplot) spoil the novel. Of course, it is intended as a piece of entertainment, and it succeeds on this level, but it could have been much more without the soft edges.