Having read and loved three of Sharon Penman’s historical fiction novels – The Sunne in Splendour, Here Be Dragons and Falls the Shadow – I’ve been interested in trying her series of historical mysteries set in medieval England. I downloaded the first in the series, The Queen’s Man, when it was offered as the Kindle Daily Deal on Amazon a while ago and have been waiting for the right time to read it.
The Queen’s Man introduces us to Justin de Quincy who, as the novel begins in December 1192, has just discovered that he is the illegitimate son of the Bishop of Chester. Furious that his father will not acknowledge their relationship, Justin sets out on a journey to London where he hopes to start a new life. Before he reaches London, however, he witnesses a murder on a snowy road just outside Winchester. As the killers flee the scene, the dying man – a goldsmith called Gervase Fitz Randolph – gives Justin a letter and makes him promise to deliver it to Queen Eleanor in London.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, widow of Henry II, is anxiously awaiting news of her son, King Richard I, who has disappeared while on crusade. As the weeks go by with no word of the missing king, it’s starting to look likely that he is dead and Eleanor’s youngest son, John, Count of Mortain, is getting ready to claim the throne for himself. Justin de Quincy’s arrival at court in possession of a bloodstained letter gives the Queen a clue as to Richard’s fate – but she still wants to know more.
As Justin was the only witness to the murder and the only person able to identify the killers, the Queen commissions him to investigate. Who was responsible for Gervase’s death? Was it a member of the goldsmith’s own family who wanted him dead or could it have been John who paid the murderers to steal the letter before it could reach Eleanor?
I enjoyed The Queen’s Man; it doesn’t compare with Penman’s straight historical novels – it lacks the depth and the emotional impact – but I didn’t mind that as I knew from the beginning that this would be a different type of book. While the plot and characters (with some obvious exceptions) are fictional, the historical background is as accurate and detailed as you would expect from Penman, with lots of interesting snippets of information that bring the 12th century to life: a visit to both a lazar house (hospital for lepers) and a medieval horse fair are incorporated, for example, and there’s a fascinating description of ‘trial by ordeal’ using hot cauldrons.
As a murder mystery, the plot is quite complex with plenty of suspects and some red herrings – although it’s slightly disappointing that some important information is withheld from the reader until near the end, so it would have been difficult to have guessed the solution before it was revealed.
The Queen’s Man has an interesting variety of supporting characters, ranging from innkeeper’s widow, Nell, and the under-sheriff of Winchester, Luke de Marston, to one of Queen Eleanor’s ladies, the beautiful Claudine. My only concern is that I found Justin de Quincy himself very bland. Based on this first novel, I wouldn’t have thought he was a strong enough character to build a whole series around. I could be wrong about him, though, and I’m still interested enough to want to read the next book, Cruel as the Grave, at some point to see how his story continues.