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Book Review: The Clerk’s Tale by Margaret Frazer

Medieval murder mysteries are a small but growing subgenre of the mystery category. Ellis Peters was its most famous pioneer, and her Brother Cadfael mysteries are still sold in stores, even after her death in 1995. Since her first Cadfael mystery, A Morbid Taste for Bones, a lot of imitators have cropped up, thereby creating the medieval murder mystery. Peter Tremayne, Sharon Kay Penman, Kate Sedley, and Michael Jecks are all immensely popular.

But no series or characters (other than Peters) are nearly as popular as the Dame Frevisse Mysteries, by Margaret Frazer (a pen name for two collaborators originally, now only one writer pens the books, although she kept the name). A two-time Edgar award nominee, the Frevisse mysteries are set in the tumultuous 15th century in England. A time of great upheaval, and political machinations (England was embroiled in the Hundred Years War with France and Agincourt was not long past) it provides a perfect backdrop to Frazer’s mystery, The Clerk’s Tale.

Each of her titles has a nod to the famous chapters of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In fact, Dame Frevisse, the heroine of the story is actually a distant relation to Chaucer, through a marriage, although the connection is remote enough that Frazer is free to write her stories without needing to fictionalize historical personages.

The Clerk’s Tale is a particularly interesting addition to the tale of Frevisse (a nun at the priory of St. Frideswides) as the murdered man is none other than her nemesis the crowner Master Montfort. Crowners were men who investigated murders, and held the inquests to determine causes of death. They did not punish, but rather served more of a detective role. Frevisse had had many occasions to clash with the self-serving and ambitious Montfort before, more often than not leading to Frevisse’s pointing out his wrong conclusions.

As the story unfolds, the majority is told from the perspective of Frevisse. She is a pious nun, although her quick mind and cynical nature lead her to question many of the things other people assume to be true. In this case however, she is being asked to investigate the murder of a man she loathed. This creates an interesting conflict, that Frazer explores well without belaboring the point, of her desire for justice and her desire to have nothing to do with the man. This leads to some soul searching by Frevisse throughout the course of the investigation. While the mystery itself is not overly complex, and is rather easily solved by the reader, it is the characterization of Frevisse that ultimately makes this story a worthwhile read.

Some of the story is told from the point-of-view of Montfort’s clerk, a nervous, unassuming man, who finds solace and comfort in his scrolls and the words on them. The contrast between the clerk and Frevisse is stark, but as the plot moves forward, the reader will find that perhaps they are kindred spirits after all. The clerk’s tale is not developed as much as it should have been, and since his past plays a large part in a decision he later makes, I would have preferred to know why he decides as he does, rather than the way Frazer leaves it enigmatic.

The historical background of the story is well-developed, and Frazer shows her knowledge of England in the 15th century, even to go so far as to research the medieval town of Goring, the site of the murder, using the original terrain to create a “locked door” style mystery.

The failure of the novel comes in the solution to the story. It is both simple and trite, with all being revealed through explosions of anger, rather than the quick wittedness of Frevisse. This is disappointing, as in previous books of the series, the murderer was not easily identifiable, and the solutions to the cases were clever. However, this is more than made up for by the development of Frevisse as a character, especially her struggle to love the unlovely, and pursue the holiness of her vocation.

A good example of being “in the world but not of the world” the Frevisse character exemplifies the struggle all religious people have with serving God, and serving their fellow man. And if she solves a good murder mystery while she’s at it, mores the better.