Sunday, May 24, 2009

Nine Men Dancing

I had an account with several years before I had one with, and Kate Sedley is one reason why.  I picked up her first Roger the Chapman mystery, Death and the Chapman about 15 years ago, but after the first few installments, she must have been dropped by her American publisher.  I was hooked, though, so after a few years shopping with a now-defunct bookstore in London, I started buying her books (and those by Michael Jecks and Susanna Gregory) through

Sedley makes Fifteenth Century England feel both familiar and alien.  Roger's travels wouldn't seem out of place on the Travel Channel, if they were to do a walking tour of southern England, but the bustling commercial city of Bristol only has a few thousand inhabitants, most of whom  have some connection to each other.  It's odd to think of a major city with fewer people than my Roxborough neighborhood, and even odder to think of a town so isolated that an outsider's marriage and relocation is gossip-worthy twenty years later and a decade after his death.

Nine Men Dancing begins, as do about half of Sedley's mysteries, with Roger leaving Bristol in January, 1478 to sell his ribbons and notions in the small settlements and villages of Southeastern England.  As he begins his return trip to Bristol, he stumbles across an abandoned manor.  A few hours later, he hears how the brothers who owned the manor died of plague shortly after digging a new well, and also about the disappearance of Eris Lilywhite.  The prior autumn, Eris had disappeared on a stormy night after Nathaniel Rawbone announced that he planned to marry her.  Eris had originally been attached to Nathaniel's son Tom, who had jilted Rosamund Bush, who first tells Roger the story.  He meets Eris's mother and grandmother and promises the older woman to try to discover if Eris is dead or alive.  Naturally, everyone in this small, isolated community has an idea of who may have murdered Eris, with most suspicion centering on the jilted Tom Rawbone and his older brother Ned whose inheritance would be decreased if his father started a new family with Eris.  

Sedley neatly ties the threads together, ending with Eris's sad but believable fate, the details of which involve a bit more technical knowledge of water tables than I expect in a medieval tale.  She also mixes in the politics of courtship in a small village where everyone knows (and is probably related) to each other.  With only a few eligible men and women of marriageable age, the competition for the son of a well-off farmer (like Tom Redbone) or the tavern-keeper's daughter (Rosamund Bush, who spends the novel playing hard-to-get with Lambert Miller) can be as fierce as any seen in Jane Austen's assemblies and balls.  It's one of the more enjoyable books in an entertaining series.   Sedley's books are hard to find in the US, but finding them is worth the effort.

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