Wednesday, 25 October 2000

Michael Jecks: Squire Throwleigh's Heir (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 662

One of the poorest entries in Jecks' generally excellent series of medieval mysteries, Squire Throwleigh's Heir never really catches the attention. The problems start with the title, which while genuinely possible in the fourteenth century with the meaning it carries - landowner instead of apprentice knight - tends to suggest an eighteenth or nineteenth century setting (the usage, with the title followed by the surname, also suggests this). The introduction, the most interesting part of the novel, actually talks about this type of problem, as Jecks defends writing in modern English and points out that some of the words correspondents have objected to (such as "posse") are genuinely in period but have anachronistic connotations to the modern reader.

The murder in this novel is of a six year old boy, heir to the manor of Throwleigh, a few weeks after the death of his father. This event provokes an emotional reaction in both the sleuths of the series, as Simon Puttock lost his beloved son at about that age, and Baldwin Furnshill has just got married and is thinking of his own future family. However, the investigation comes over as rather mechanical, the emotional parts of the prose reading, unconvincingly, as though they have been tacked on later. (It is even sometimes difficult to work out which feelings are being attributed to which character.) Though the solution to the mystery makes sense, the way it is set up is very artificial, the number of people who have secret reasons for being near the scene of the crime assuming farcical proportions.

None of the non-series characters are particularly sympathetic, and the most interesting is so only because of his occupation. He is a man at arms, but an expert in all the different forms of medieval combat, a trainer who is rather like an Eastern martial arts teacher. Such men did exist and were much in demand as bodyguards, despite the modern picture of medieval fighting as a crude matter of strength alone. (The quarterstaff and longbow, both English specialities, were weapons demanding great skill.)

It seems strange that such an excellent series contains a novel as poor as this one, but that is partly because of raised expectations. By comparison to some of the other writers who have stepped into the historical crime novel market after the medieval mystery was popularised by Ellis Peters, Jecks is still one of the best, creating one of the strongest backgrounds of all of them.

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