Sir John de Wolfe is the Coroner for Exeter, but he also takes care of the lands around Exeter. So when he is summoned to the sight of a body found in Axmouth, he goes, even if it is a long ride. The body is that of a young man, buried along the shore. The first finder is the local priest, and Luke de Casewold, the Keeper of the Peace for the area, is convinced that the young man's death was murder.
John may not like de Casewold, but he can't fault his conclusions. And it seems that the young man couldn't merely be a dead body washed up on the shore, as it was buried, and the land he was found on belongs to the Priory of Loders. The first finder was a priest who had gone out to bury his dead dog. He is priest of a different church, but he doesn't recognize the lad. Only later do they find out that the deceased is named Simon Makerel, the son of a widow named Edith. She tells them that he had a job on the trading cog Tiger, and that he had been deeply troubled recently after a voyage he'd returned from, enough that he had gone to church to confess and was going to speak to the bailiff.
But someone apparently didn't want him to speak- because he was strangled and dumped in a grave. The question is, what did the boy see and what were his murderer or murderers hiding? Luke de Casewold is convinced it has something to do with smuggling and the tales of piracy plaguing the Channel between England and France. He suspects the local merchants of doing the smuggling, but can't figure out how exactly they are doing it- even though the portreeve can't read or write, he's figured out his own method of keeping tallies of what comes in to Axmouth, and needless to say, he doesn't take kindly to suggestions that he may not be completely honest.
But something is definitely going out in Axmouth. Later, Sir John is called out to another dead body, that of a Peddler found slain in the middle of the road. This one, at least, is well-known in the area, and he was harmless. So who would slay someone like that?
While investigating the death, they come on an attack against a party of churchmen, and the stonemason who travels with them. John and his henchman, Gwyn, leap into battle and save the last remaining churchman and the stonemason, who is injured. John takes him home to Exeter, where he asks his mistress, Nesta, who is the owner of the tavern known as the Bush, to care for the injured man.
However, he soon finds that Nesta is drawn to the man, who hails from the same part of Wales that she does, and John feels he has erred in lodging the man with her. At the same time, his homefront is much disrupted, for his wife, Matilde, in a deep funk, has taken herself to the Nunnery of Posloe, with the intention of becoming a nun. He's sure she will soon be home- she loves her food and her comfort, and she has run away to the nunnery before, but soon returned home. This time, however, she doesn't seem to be coming back, and she won't even speak to him.
It appears that her brother's misdeeds, and her reaction to them, has finally caught up to her. She is in a deep despair, and is worried for her soul. John's servant, the kitchenmaid Mary, is worried for the state of the household, and what will happen to her without Matilde around. John maintains that soon Matilda will return, getting tired of living in such austere conditions.
And things continue to go downhill. Luke de Casewold is killed in the middle of the night, and John must make a visit to France to see the Chief Justicar of the Nation. While he is there, he meets King Richard, who is fighting a war in the south of France, and hearing the situation in Exeter and what John has been doing, makes him the King's Crowner in London- as soon as he finishes his current case.
Now John is concerned for how his life will go after he moves to London. Mary is even more concerned for what will happen to her- but John reassures her he will take her with him. He tries again to contact his wife, but she once again refuses to see him- even when he has the Prioress tells her about John's new posting to London.
John must work with the Sherrif, Henry de Furnellis, to bring the case to a close and to catch those responsible for smuggling, piracy and murder. But can he do it before he must go to London- and will his wife, or Nesta, be accompanying him? And what will he do if neither of them see fit to leave along with him?
I have a feeling a lot is going to change very soon for John, because my understanding of history is such that I know Richard doesn't live for very long after this period and history, and John may end up serving his brother, Prince John, also known as John Lackland, because he didn't inherit any land from their father. I have gotten the feeling that, like a lot of Knights who served under King Richard, he is not going to think John a fit King- or work well with him.
Richard might even consign John to some faraway place or post, or strip him of his post entirely. But suffice to say that changes are definitely in the offing, and I am at least interested in seeing what happens to John, and if his wife accompanies him to make his life interesting/miserable. What else will happen to him? Will he have the constraints of a wife without Matilde?
I enjoyed the mystery in this book, which was unusually knotty and convoluted. Several threads in the book are somewhat confusing, until the end when you finally understand what has been going on behind the scenes. This was a fitting send-off from Exeter for John, leaving just the right amount of hope and uncertainty for the future. Recommended.