Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Book review - "The Sempter's Tale" by Margaret Frazer

Over the past few books, Frazer has concentrated mainly on the corruption that surrounded Henry VI.  Her sleuth, Dame Frevisse, is cousin to the duchess of Suffolk, Alice de la Pole.  Alice’s husband was the duke of Suffolk, who was murdered after years of usurping the king’s power and treasuries for his own gain.  Frazer’s novels have taken an interesting turn from Frevisse solving murders in and around the quiet nunnery St. Frideswide, which is a safe distance from the dangerous London, to her in the midst of the court intrigue with its backstabbing and vices, usually culminating in someone’s murder.  A series that started out as cozy mysteries is now historical fiction based on the life of King Henry VI.

In "The Sempter’s Tale" (‘sempster’ a medieval term meaning ‘seamster’), Frazer addresses the vile hatred toward the Jewish in mid-fifteenth century England, where Jews had been banned, but lived in utmost secrecy to save their skins.  The sempter/widow Anne is hopelessly in love with Daved, a secret Jew.  She knows who he is and knows the dangers to him will also be hers if they are found out. 

Against her will, Frevisse is forced to become a pawn yet again, in another of her cousin’s troubles.  This time, Alice wants her husband’s gold to be secretly brought back into England, without paying the required taxes but also without attracting the attention of the late duke’s enemies.  Anne and Daved are part of this plan to return Alice’s gold to her as well.

Then a boy, who is part of Anne’s household disappears and is found later murdered, with wounds that are similar to a crucifixion.  Immediately, suspicion falls on the Jews, although there aren’t supposed to be any in London.  Later, when Daved is unsurprisingly discovered, a fanatical priest blames him for the murder.  Frevisse, again, must sort through the convoluted clues and events to discover what happened to the young man.

Frevisse has her own doubts about Jewish people, but having known some in her youth, she isn’t as prejudice as almost everyone around her.  I found it interesting some of the horrible arguments and feelings that Londoners used to justify their oppression of the Jews.  But as Daved points out in his ‘discussion’ with the fanatical priest, Christians don’t mind them when Jews are helping them make money. 
Frevisse does not get into any arguments about faith, but has to withhold her own judgment when she discovers the depth of Anne and Daved’s relationship. 

Not much on mystery in this one, but definitely another great insight into the environment of fifteenth-century England, Henry VI included and not included.

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