Friday, December 31, 2010

The Coiners' Quarrel by Simon Beaufort

I prefer to read a series like Simon Beaufort’s Sir Geoffrey Mappestone in chronological order, so I knew I’d be missing some action when I read The Coiners’ Quarrel, the fifth book without reading the third and fourth novels.

Fortunately, I wasn’t too far out of the loop from the events in the second novel, A Head for Poisoning, the last Beaufort work I read. Geoffrey is still in cold, damp, musty England, desperately hoping to return to the dry, hot, dusty Holy Land and the service of Tancred. His hopes are dashed when King Henry I orders him to investigate the charges of counterfeiting, fraud, and embezzlement levied on a coiner of the realm by another, and to find a large shipment of silver that was stolen.

Sir Geoffrey is furious but realizes that he has no choice. To compound his frustration, Geoffrey’s sister Joan and her husband are implicated in the case between the coiners, as being traitors to the crown. From the very beginning of the trip to Bath, attempts are made on his life. The wife of a coiner tries several times to seduce him. Two physicians constantly squabble. Everyone, it seems, including his sister Joan and his squire are hostile toward him and no one is telling him the truth. As a result, his investigation stalls.

Finally, with help from an unlikely source, the mystery begins to unravel and it comes apart at a breathtaking pace. Beaufort’s plot has twists and turns with surprises on every page and incorporates a background rich in historic detail.

One of the most interesting characters is Mappestone’s reluctant squire Durand. From the beginning of the book (and I’m sure I missed his introduction somewhere in the previous two novels), it is clear he is gay. But unlike Thomas, the gay character in Priscilla Royal’s series featuring Prioress Eleanor of Wynthrope, who struggles with his sexuality in an era where he could be put to death because of it, Durand flaunts it. He makes no secret of the fact to the point of anachronism. He’s a total queen. I’m not sure how many gay men in the early twelfth century would comment on women’s shoes, or would admit, nay brag, about dressing as a woman, even if it is to spy. Homosexuals at that time had no protection (just like today) against any type of oppression, no matter their status. But at that time, fear of execution kept many homosexuals closeted. Durand acts as if there is no specter of death. Nevertheless, Durand’s real role in the mystery is more disturbing than his sexuality.

Mappestone endures more adversity than squabbling physicians, an aloof sister, and a gay squire. Beaufort pumps up the action along with the plot tangles. It is books like The Coiners' Quarrel that keep me coming back for more.

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