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CRUEL AS THE GRAVE
By Sharon Penman

Henry Holt, 1998
Ballantine Books, October, 99 (pbk)

Reviewed by J. Ashley

The second book in the Justin de Quincy series is unfortunately not as satisfying as the first. The characters introduced in THE QUEEN'S MAN return, but the mystery plot is fairly standard, and Penman does little to develop Justin's character; in fact, he becomes less likable in this installment.

Two plots intertwine in this story: Prince John has decided to openly rebel against his mother, Eleanor of Acquitaine, and Richard I, who is held hostage in Austria. Eleanor requests Justin to help her find John and later, to aid her to thwart the rebellion. The second plot involves the murder of a peddler's daughter--Justin is asked by one of his friends in Gracechurch Street to clear her nephews of suspicion.

The story gathers Justin's assortment of friends from the first book: Luke, deputy sheriff from Winchester; Jonas, a sheriff in London; Nell, the pixy-like tavern keeper; Claudine, the flirtatious lady-in-waiting to Queen Eleanor; and Durand, a spy at odds with Justin.

Justin questions the dead girl's family and the family of the two young men suspected of killing her. In standard murder-mystery fashion, he uncovers grim secrets in both families and whittles away the puzzles surrounding the murder. In the middle of this, Eleanor summons Justin and bids him carry out a mission to bring the rebellion to its end.

The interesting twists from THE QUEEN'S MAN are missing from the murder plot, and the solution is obvious. Also, the author suspends the entire murder investigation for a time while Justin assists the Queen. The John/Eleanor plot is more interesting-the author's portrayals of Queen Eleanor and Prince John are masterful. Penman admits in an author's note that she enjoys any excuse to write about Eleanor and her "dysfunctional family."

I was also disappointed in the subplot surrounding Claudine and Justin. Claudine is too sympathetic a character to make me respect Justin's actions in this book, and I came away dissatisfied.

What is best about the book is Penman's ability to create a vivid setting and the intriguing portraits of the royal family. Both of these qualities save what might have become a mediocre mystery.

Penman is a veteran writer of mainstream historical novels, and squeezes in Justin de Quincy stories when she can. I am willing to read the next book when it appears; the author is talented enough that I hope the next installment will be back up to her standard.

Other books by this author: THE QUEEN'S MAN.


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