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Monday, November 22, 2010

The Tainted Relic. The Medieval Murderers. Simon & Schuster UK (2005)

This is a very engaging and enjoyable anthology of linked stories that start in 1100 at the sack of Jerusalem and finish five hundred years later in London, all the stories are linked by the tainted relic of the title. The stories are all very enjoyable with a couple standing out.
The opening story by Simon Beaufort sets the scene, at the sack of Jerusalem, a relic is cursed by its murdered guardian. Whoever touches the relic will die a gruesome death as soon as the relic leaves their possession. The tension between the value of such a relic, said to be part of the True Cross and the danger of possessing it drive the plots of the following stories. The force of both of these elements are nicely captured in the story as the relic is moved from Jerusalem. It appears in England, in the possession of a man heading to Glastonbury to sell it, he is murdered and robbed before he can do so. Bernard Knight writes how Crowner John, one of the newly created coroners, investigates the crime. The story has a vivid cast and a strong plot, the relic is central and is used to provide a sharp focus for the cast, the politics and personal tensions of the era are strongly drawn.
A decapitated monk in Oxford in 1269 is the start for a search by William Falconer to uncover the truth in a story by Ian Morson. The story is very well constructed, a big cast are introduced effectively, story threads are cleverly woven and sharp humour is welcome.
In 1323 in Exeter, a number of murders seem to have links to the relic and Michael Jecks' Sir Baldwin has a problem in making sense of what has happened. This is one of the two best stories in the book, the plot is very cleverly constructed, the reveals excellent, the cast are forceful and engaging. Michael Jecks manages the constriction of space with ease. The following story set thirty years later in Cambridge , written by Susanna Gregory is the other stand out story. It is a remarkable piece of compression, the story feels much more expansive than it is, the cast are superb and the plot gripping.
The final story by Philip Gooden and set in London is clever and amusing. It features the most unusual and effective court witness I have read about and and very neatly resolves a question about the relic. An epilogue set in 2005 provides a very sharp final sting for this excellent collection.
As with any period stories the detail in the stories is crucial and in all cases it is woven into the context of the stories with skill and care. The strong plots allow the cast to move through their various locations and times with confidence and the reader gets to enjoy the story and the scenery with equal pleasure. Great fun.

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