Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Bishop's Tale by Margaret Frazer

This is the third time I've read The Bishop's Tale by Margaret Frazer, the fourth in her Sister Frevisse series.  And it still entertains.   Even though I know 'whodunit', I still enjoy reading it.

In this tale, Dame Frevisse's beloved uncle Thomas Chaucer passes away.  She travels to the home she knew as a child and is reunited with her aunt and cousin Alice.  During the funeral wake, an odious man whom everyone dislikes challenges God to strike him down.  To everyone's amazement, he begins to choke and collapses.

Later Frevisse is sent to see how he is doing.  The man, Sir Clemente Sharpe, is feeling better, but has a relapse and dies on the spot.

The powerful Bishop Beaufort isn't ready to assign Sharpe's death to the hand of God.  He appoints Frevisse to find out what she can.  Did anyone at the funeral party have a hand in his demise?

Frazer must have an incredible grasp of medieval literature, since Frevisse and her companion from St. Frideswide Priory Dame Perpetua scour the impressive library of Chaucer's to find important clues about poisons.  It's interesting to read references to other tomes that were available in the first half of the fifteenth century.  Back then, before the Gutenberg press was invented, books had to be copied by hand, so they were not widely accessible.  Most of the populace had no such access.  Even St. Frideswide had only nine books.  During their search, Dame Perpetua finds a book that she remembered as a child.  Naturally, she momentarily forgets their quest to revisit a favorite childhood memory.

Throughout The Bishop's Tale, Frevisse and others quote numerous other works, but generally the only people who could read were the clergy or the extremely wealthy, i.e. royalty. 

I've mentioned before how Frazer brings the fifteenth century to life in her previous novels, but she always has something new.  She describes Ewelme Manor in rich, vivid detail and shows how such a large estate is managed, the responsibilities of the household and the expectations of the lord and lady of the manor. 

The emotional stakes are higher here as Frevisse's family deal with the loss of a beloved husband, father and uncle.  Frazer tugs at the heartstrings as one of characters, a young man, contemplates his bleak situation and even worse prospects for the future. 

Some authors I cannot read their books back to back but Frazer isn't one of them.  I can't wait to read the next.  I hope it's worth reading three times, too.

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