Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Alehouse Murders by Maureen Ash

In her first of a new mystery series, Maureen Ash introduces the reader to Templar Knight Bascot de Marins, who has returned to England after years of captivity in the Holy Land at the hands of the Saracen. Injured in his escape to freedom, de Marins is on sojourn from the Order at the castle of Lincoln, to allow his leg to heal. The leave from the Templar Knights also gives him a chance to question and renew his fading faith.
Nicolaa de la Haye, the lady in charge of the castle and wife to the sheriff, charges Bascot to find the murderer of four people found dead in the alehouse. The deaths come on the eve of Lincoln's huge midsummer fair and she is concerned that the person responsible could disappear into the crowds.
As the temperature rises, so does the body count and Bascot finds himself dealing with a ruthless and very determined killer.
Ash creates a vivid picture of medieval life and culture against the backdrop of King John I's reign. Although the monarch does not appear in the story, his pressure is felt by all and his influence is palpable. It is interesting to read Ash's portrayal of John as king which is in contrast to the depiction of him as prince to his brother, Richard I. Sharon K. Penman's excellent Justin de Quincy series lays John's perfidy and malice (some of which seems genuinely justified) unapologetically open and exposed.
The most engaging of Ash's characters besides Bascot are his young ward Gianni, and the aging matriarch Hilde, who also recognizes the intelligence of the wounded Templar and becomes instrumental in helping him solve the mystery. Gianni, the mute Italian orphan rescued from the streets and starvation by Bascot, communicates with the Templar through a series of hand signals and captures the readers' hearts as well as attention. Gianni is devoted to Bascot as a son is to a father and the sentiment is returned. Bascot lost an eye during his captivity (reminding the reader of Candace Robb's one-eyed hero Owen Archer) and relies on the boy's visual acuity for finding clues.
Bascot de Marins is a complex character like another Templar sleuth, Michael Jecks's Sir Baldwin Furnshill.
Ash received kudos from Penman and another medieval mystery legend, Margaret Frazer, along with other accolades printed everywhere on the paperback edition. The glowing reports are deserved as this book is worthy enough to be put along side the other medieval whodunits from Frazer and Penman. Ash's writing style tends to be heavy on the passive voice, but this does not distract from the reading pleasure. I look forward to reading the next one.

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