Hunting for something new at McKay's the other day, I ran across a series by Margaret Frazer -- the Dame Frevisse Medieval Mysteries -- in which a nun in a medieval convent solves crimes. It looked intriguing, and a quick glance showed the writing to be good, so I decided to try it out and bought The Squire's Tale.
It's a quiet, slow-paced novel, allowing the reader to get a sense of character, setting, and context without leaping into the criminal action. In fact, the murders to be solved don't even occur until nearly 3/4 of the way through. Yet I didn't find myself wondering when we would get to that point; I felt that the development warranted it and merely kept wondering which character it would be, given the dynamics among them.
Dame Frevisse interests me very much. She is a woman of faith, who loves God and the worship of God, who gives willing obedience to her superior in the convent, who goes about her tasks with a generally willing and cheerful spirit. When her tasks are not to her liking, she takes herself in hand, bites back uncharitable words and thoughts, and gets on with it. When a matter is none of her business, she curbs her curiosity and turns her mind elsewhere. At the same time, she notices all that goes on around her and remembers it when she needs it.
Not that she is a doormat, not at all. When the abbess proposes that she wear an expensive cloak (a gift from her cousin which she never wears because of her vow of poverty) on her journey, she points out that the other sister has no such cloak and it would look out of place for one to be richly dressed, the other not; the abbess accepts her assessment. When the lady of the house she stays in for a time acts the fool, Dame Frevisse rebukes her calmly and firmly and does not give in to her pleas for undeserved pity. When the men of the household demur at her asking questions, she simply asserts the authority given her by the master of the house and persists.
Perhaps because the murders occur so late in the book, I did find the resolution a little too quick. It wasn't unprepared for; I had suspected the culprit now and then though without certainty. But we hadn't been as well prepared for the motive as I would have liked. (I also felt that one of the principle characters should have done a bit of penance before being rewarded, though the reward is just.) However, for me these were minor flaws.
Especially refreshing: no foul language; no explicit sex or excessive gore; unashamed discussion of sin, repentance, love of God, right and wrong; characters who struggle with sin and desire to live righteously; a main character who is willing to obey God and man yet without being limply subservient and while upholding the claims of justice. In other words, I found it realistic without giving in to certain modern sensibilities which I find wearying at best.
I'd put this novel on a par with Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn series and plan to gather others as I can. An enjoyable day's read, and, if you like character development and quiet pacing, definitely worthwhile.