One reason I like reading historical mysteries is that I always seem to learn something new about life in different eras and far away places. Michael Jecks's A Moorland Hanging, the third in his series featuring Bailiff Simon Puttick and former Templar knight Sir Baldwin Furnshill, centers around England's tin mining industry in the early fourteenth century. Monarchs had granted miners special privileges during medieval times, giving them a broad range of freedoms. This leeway forms the basis of the mystery in A Moorland Hanging.
When a miner is found hanged from a tree, it is soon discovered that he is an escaped villein from the local knight's service and has found refuge in the safety of the King's rules protecting tin miners. Was his murder an act of retribution by the knight Sir William or his sons? Or could he have run afoul of Thomas Smyth, the most powerful miner in the area who's strong-arming others into leaving, giving him more control and more wealth?
Simon and Baldwin have a very daunting task. Everyone near the victim has secrets and does not trust anyone else. Not even the bailiff and his friend, the Templar knight, whose ideals are usually considered above reproach.
Confounding the mystery is the favoritism shown to the victim Peter Bruther by Smyth. Simon and Baldwin discover that Bruther enjoyed unusual immunity from Smyth and his bullies who used heavy-handed techniques and assault to clear out other miners unwanted by him.
Sir William's sons, Robert and John feud among each other as well. Robert as the oldest is the heir to the manor and all its lands. This understandably stirs up resentment in the younger brother, John who has been gone for several years training to become a knight. Robert thinks Joh is brash, wild and immature. John thinks Robert is soft, spineless and does not have what it takes to keep villeins in line and from disgracing the family name.
Jecks describes early fourteenth century England with stark vividness. He can easily give the reader a clear image of the moors, the Beauscyr Manor and the stuffiness of an English summer; the hardships of the tin miners as they struggle to eke out a living off of the very-often harsh land; and the political environment of the current ruler. He illustrates this backdrop with the hierarchy and stations of Edward II's subjects and their opinions of him.
This culture is fascinating and brought to life by Jecks's able story-telling. A Moorland Hanging is a complex mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the last page.