Monday, May 17, 2010

Serpent in the Thorns by Jeri Westerson

Cripsin Guest is a disgraced ex-knight who lives in London, eking out an existence as "The Finder", an investigator for hire. He's no longer a knight because when he was young, he was involved in a conspiracy to defeat King Richard II and put his foster father, the Earl of Gaunt, on the throne in his place. Crispin loved his foster father, and believed he would be a much better ruler than the then ten year old Richard. But the man who led him into the conspiracy, Miles Aleyn, never faced charges for what he did. Crispin and the others were tortured, but refused to give up the name of Miles. The others were killed by the King's Men, and Crispin, whose foster father begged for his life, was allowed to live, but everything was taken away from him. Even his family, by the King's order. who could no longer help him in any way.

Crispin is awakened from a drunken sleep by a young blonde woman, who says there is a dead man in her room. Crispin asks her some questions, but it is obvious that the girl is somewhat damaged in the head, And when he asks her who killed the man, she says she must have done it- there was no one else there.

Crispin isn't likely to believe this , so he follows the girl back to her room at a nearby Inn, where she and her sister work, And indeed, there is a dead man in the room- a Frenchman, by the looks of him, and a courier as well. A barbed arrow is buried in his chest, but no bow is in evidence. But he isn't empty-handed. In his baggage is a box filled with gold, and a special treasure, a crown. A token in his belt pouch confirms that he is a courier for the French crown, and that the Crown, supposedly the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross, is being sent as a gift from the French King to the English King.

Crispin also doesn't believe that the crown is real, but he is surprised when another woman comes into the room. She is Livith, and she is the sister of the other girl, whose name is Grayce. They are servants at the Inn, and neither one has any idea how the dead man got into the room or who killed him, Grayce repeats that she killed the man, but neither Crispin nor Liveth believe her. Crispin knows he can't go to the sheriff with his tale- the Sheriff would take Grayce at her word and kill her, no matter how improbable or impossible it would be for the girl to have killed him. Nor can they be found in the same room as the murdered man, for much the same reason- any questioning of them would lead to them being taken in for the killers.

So Liveth hires him to look into the murder and find out who the real killer is. Crispin's usual fee is sixpence a day, but she only has fourpence on her, so he takes only three as a downpayment. He takes her and her sister with him to the Inn where he lives to work until he can find the killer. Along the way, he meets his servant boy, Jack Tucker, who is on the run from several men whose pockets he picked. Crispin frowns on Jack picking pockets, but the boy says it's hard for him to resist when mean with rich pockets wander near him. Crispin helps Jack get away for now, but he's getting sick of such behavior.

When Jack is away and the men chasing him are gone, he sits back to look through the evidence, even placing the crown of thorns on his head. To his surprise, the thorns are still sharp, and prick his forehead. Putting it back and hiding the box it came in, he goes for a walk, and a strange feeling overcomes him. Giddy and filled with a strange feeling of exultation, he meets the daughter of his friend the Innkeeper. She has designs on him, but he is not interested at all. Normally, he is at least polite to her, but when she doubts aloud that he was ever really a knight, he grows angry and tells her he could kill her for that, and he would, but for the fact that her father is his friend. Horrified and afraid, she runs, and shortly thereafter, he picks another fight with a man who bumped him, threatening to kill him. The man, at first belligerent, backs off, and shortly thereafter the strange spell ends.

He's quite frankly horrified by what he has done and said, and Jack, who found him in the meantime, is puzzled by his behavior. Unfortunately, Crispin has no explanations himself. Could it be that the crown is really Jesus's crown of thorns? Then, he's shot in the arm by an arrow, and the person who shot him manages to get away. Back in his rooms, he finds Jack shaken. Jack had put on the crown, got the feeling he could do anything, took it off and jumped out the window. But even though they are on the second story of the Inn, he was unhurt.

This brings up the possibility that the crown is real, but Crispin can't accept that, and goes to see his friend, the Abbot of a monastery. While pussyfooting around the issue of who has the crown, Crispin asks him about it, and the abbot tells him that the crown doesn't just make you feel invincible- you are invincible when you wear it, and for a short time afterwards- but only for someone pure of heart. Crispin feels he is anything but, but knows it to be the truth. And he's sad with what that says about him.

But whoever shot him and the French courier isn't stopping, and Crispin has a strong suggestion as to who it is- Miles Avery, his former erstwhile comrade and traitor- even the King isn't immune to being a target, but is saved when a servant takes the arrow for him, pushing the King out of the way. Each of the arrows are those of a nobleman, fletched with Hawk feathers- but who do they belong to? Miles Avery lets slip a piece of important information- that he wasn't behind the plot to put the Earl of Gaunt on the throne- someone hired him to start it. However, he won't tell Crispin who that was.

But as Crispin starts getting closer to the truth, he comes under attack again, and when he attempts to save the King's life at dinner, he is found with the bow that fired the arrow in his hands. Now under threat of imprisonment and death, can he evade the authorities long enough to elude his pursuers and find the real killer?

I was kind of surprised to see a novel labelled "Medieval Noir", because I wasn't sure how well the two ideas would go together. But, much to my surprise, they actually went together pretty well. Having the main character wake up from a drunk by a damsel in distress really rang true to the whole "noir" trope, and noir actually goes very well with a gritty medieval setting.

Of course, to be true noir, the story has to be pretty close to realistic for the medieval times. This is somewhere where courtly love is merely adultery, where the knights in shining armor are all bloody-minded murderers who, if they found an actual princess to rescue, would deflower her as soon as possible so she could only marry them, and they could become King and have power and lots of money- and Crispin, the only knight who actually tried to live up to noble ideals and his own sense of honor is looked down on and scorned.

Even his clients aren't what they seem, and he gets taken for a sap more often than not, and at the end, he's offered money and his Knighthood back, and he scorns both because of that honor and pure heart. And the only man who even comes close to him in being honorable and doing what he is asked to do is a criminal. In short, every noir trope is perfectly nailed, if in not quite the same way as classic 30's and 40's noir. And of course, the hero consumes lots and lots of booze- another noir staple.

I quite enjoyed this mystery, which shares a lot of noir tropes, but has a rather interesting hero at its center. By turns compelling and repelling, Crispin bulls his way through to the end of the mystery, and manages to come back out alive at the other end with his honor and purity of purpose intact. I'd like to read more. Recommended.

1 comment:

Jeri Westerson said...

Hey Lady Rhian,

Thanks for the plug. Glad you enjoyed the book. The next one, called The Demon's Parchment, will be coming out this October.

Jeri Westerson