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Sharon Kay Penman

Fawcett, July, 2000 (pbk)

Reviewed by J. Ashley

This excellent first mystery by a writer of historical novels contains action, well-developed characters, surprising twists, and exquisite period atmosphere.

The story takes place in the winter of 1192-1193, during the time of Richard I and his plotting brother, prince John. Eleanor of Aquitaine holds together the government of England while Richard roams the world, and John simmers with ambition.

The novel begins as Justin de Quincy discovers his true parentage--that he is the bastard son of the bishop of Chester. He confronts his father, and storms away. Subsequently losing his position with his employer, he wanders about until, outside Winchester, he comes upon a robbery and attempts to assist the victim. The victim, a goldsmith from Winchester, dies, the robbers run away, and the dying man presses upon Justin a letter that he says must reach Queen Eleanor.

Justin feels bound to take the letter to the queen, and so travels to London. He reads the letter; it tells of King Richard's capture by the Holy Roman Emperor. When he reaches Eleanor, she is grateful for his errand, but worries about the person sent to murder the goldsmith. Fearing a conspiracy, she sends Justin back to Winchester to discover the identity of the goldsmith's murderer.

Justin enters the goldsmith's household, and finds a tangle of motives involving the goldsmith's daughter, wife, son, apprentice, mistress, and the mistress' new fiancÚ, the sherif's deputy. Justin discovers the identity of the hired killer and he and the sherif's deputy chase him to London. There Justin finds himself entangled in the intrigues at court and closely watched by prince John. A charming lady-in-waiting, a rescued dog, and the friendly citizens of Gracechurch Street (where Justin takes lodgings) round out the cast of characters.

Penman's characters are well-drawn and real; she makes the distant past accessible and familiar. She describes twelfth-century London in precise detail, bringing it to life through the characters' eyes. Justin is very much an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstance, which he faces with fortitude.

When I first began this book, I thought I wouldn't like it. But the story takes many twists and turns, and I found myself caught in it. Penman ends up nowhere near where she started out, and I never predicted the solution.

I highly recommend this book. It is the first in the Justin de Quincey series; the next book is CRUEL AS THE GRAVE.

Other reviewed titles by this author include: CRUEL AS THE GRAVE.

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