Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Demon's Parchment by Jeri Westerson

Crispin Guest used to be a knight, until he was accused of treason for backing the wrong man to become King of England. Stripped of his lands and titles (and therefore his money) as well as his knighthood, he survives the hard streets of London by selling his services as a finder and Detective, becoming well-known as "The Hunter". But even as he struggles to keep body and soul together, he must keep out of reach of the King, who still bears Crispin a grudge and wants nothing more than to see him killed or banished from England permanently.

Now, it is winter, and life is doubly hard. Bur Crispin's aid is sought by a physician of the court. Some papers have been stolen from him, papers it is imperative that he must regain, even if he refuses to tell Crispin the nature of the papers or even how many there are. All he can tell Crispin is that the Papers are in Hebrew, and that it is absolutely imperative that he must get them back.

But that's not the only problem Crispin is confronted with. There have been deaths in the city, the deaths of young men, barely more than children. At the scene of the crime, a massive figure with a suspiciously tiny head has been seen, and in his wake, the bodies are found, along with small bits of clay. Crispin is retained by the Sheriffs of London to find the culprit behind these murders, thus obviating the need for the men to bestir themselves and look into something that personally frightens them very, very much.

Along with this, Crispin finds himself running into an old rival in love who apparently hadn't realized the depths to which Crispin has sunk in his time away from Court. Though he now holds Crispin's old estate as part of his own, he does his best to try and help his former rival in matters of the Court, helping him evade the men who would arrest him for merely entering the Royal Court, and proving himself something of a friend now that he and Crispin can no longer compete for the same things.

But in the matter of the Jewish Doctor's papers, Crispin is opposed by the man's son, Julian, who also happens to be his apprentice as a Doctor. Between the two of them, he discovers that the missing papers are copies of the words God spoke to bring the world into being, Words of Creation. But Crispin suspects that the Doctor's son, Julian, knows more about the crime than he is telling, and learns of how the words were used long ago, to construct a man of clay who was supposed to protect the Jews, but who fell in love with the daughter of the Rabbi who constructed him, ensuring a tragedy when the Rabbi wouldn't let his daughter marry the construct.

Could something similar be happening in London? Is there a golem going around murdering young men? And why is Crispin finding himself suddenly attracted to Julian? Could everything he ever thought or believed about himself be a lie? And who is collecting the clay to make another Golem, and does the Jewish community hiding in London know anything about it?

Wow, this book pulled me in a number of different directions while I was reading. I twigged to the "Golem" part of the story right away. As soon as they went into the Jewish Doctor whose important papers were stolen, yet he doesn't want to speak about what the papers are or why they are so important, my first thought was... "I bet this turns out to have something to do with the Golem, which was brought to life by putting papers with God's words on them into his mouth." And lo and behold, that's exactly what the papers were. I didn't really think of it as a surprise, but it was nice to see Jewish legend coming into the story.

And it was a further nice thing to see the main character, Crispin, actually questioning his sexuality when he falls for the Doctor's son. Instead of treating it as (Scream) "Ooh, icky cooties!", I found the whole thing handled in a mature fashion. Yes, Crispin feels rather repulsed by the feelings he has, but he doesn't spend his time flailing his arms and screaming about it. Instead, he approaches it in a fairly mature fashion, by discussing it with a bisexual transvestite he knows and is friendly with. (I don't know if you can really call them friends, but they are fairly friendly.)

But in the end, the story remains true to its noir roots in many ways. I am getting to the point where I am getting suspicious of any of Crispin's old friends who show up, because they seem to inevitably want to screw him over at some point, which happens to be a very noir trope. Seeing it here in a medieval mystery is refreshing, even if it feels like poor Crispin can't ever cut a break or find someone truly loyal to him except his servant/apprentice and some of the common people.

I found this book very enjoyable to read, with all the different threads that went into making it up, and some things I never would have expected to see in any mystery story. The combination of medieval and noir continues to interest and excite me when it comes to the stories. Ms. Westerson has developed a new genre of novels, one I never would have thought of myself, and I continue to look out for them because I know I will be assured a good story that's both interesting and amazing to read. Highly recommended.

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