The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Yes, this is the same Minette Walters who is best known for her crime novels which include The Ice House and The Dark Room. I’ve never read any of those (at least I don’t think so – I did used to read a lot more crime than I do now so it’s possible I may have read one of her books and forgotten about it) but when I saw that her new book, The Last Hours, marked a change of direction from crime to historical fiction I was immediately interested!

The Last Hours is set in 1348 on the estate of Develish in Dorsetshire. Those of you who know your 14th century history will know that the Black Death, which had been sweeping its way across Europe, reached England in 1348 – and this forms the heart of Walters’ novel. Sir Richard of Develish falls victim to the plague early in the book, leaving his wife, Lady Anne, responsible for the demesne, the household and the serfs who work the land. Lady Anne gathers everyone inside the boundaries of the moated manor, believing that cutting off contact with the outside world will be the best way to avoid the pestilence.

With so many people forced to live together in a confined space, it is inevitable that problems will arise, old rivalries will resurface and tempers will be lost. The cause of most of the trouble at Develish is Sir Richard’s daughter, Lady Eleanor, a cruel and selfish fourteen-year-old who resents having to live with the serfs. In particular, her hatred is directed at Thaddeus Thurkell, a serf who has just been promoted to the position of Lady Anne’s steward, a move which Eleanor sees as evidence of her mother’s favouritism and unnatural affection for Thaddeus. When supplies at the manor begin to run low, it is Thaddeus who volunteers to venture out into the countryside to find food – but what is the real reason for his departure?

The Last Hours was an interesting read for me as I’ve always found the Black Death a fascinating topic (sorry if that sounds morbid). Walters explores so many different aspects of the disease: the beliefs and superstitions surrounding it; the physical effects it has on the body; the theories people had as to what was causing it; and the limited methods of preventing its spread. However, I knew as soon as I started reading that at some point our protagonists would make the connection with rats and fleas and recognise the importance of hygiene and cleanliness – and I was right. It would have been so much more convincing from a historical point of view if they had continued to think the plague was a punishment from God or that it was caused by breathing bad air.

I did like both Lady Anne and Thaddeus, even if they don’t always feel like believable 14th century people, and they (along with a young maid, Isabella) were certainly the characters I had most sympathy for. Lady Eleanor is the most unpleasant, unlikeable character I’ve come across for some time. She is horrible from her first appearance and remains horrible throughout the entire book – although we do eventually learn a little bit more about her and what possibly made her the way she is, so maybe we’ll see a different side of her in the sequel.

And yes, there is going to be a sequel. I had no idea this was the first in a series until I reached the words ‘to be continued’, so be aware that if you do choose to read this book it doesn’t have a proper conclusion and we are left with lots of loose ends. At the moment I’m not sure whether I will be looking for the second book; I found this one quite slow and unevenly paced – I enjoyed the chapters set in and around Develish, but struggled to stay interested in the adventures of Thaddeus and his companions as they wandered the countryside looking for supplies. I will probably be tempted, though, as I do have lots of questions that haven’t been answered!

Thanks to Atlantic Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

15 thoughts on “The Last Hours by Minette Walters

  1. Café Society says:

    I would love to know what has prompted this change of direction and after a ten year literary silence, as well. I’m not surprised there is a really nasty character in the person of Lady Eleanor. There were some pretty nasty characters in her crime fiction as well. In fact, I gave up reading it because of some of the truly awful women Walters created.

    • Helen says:

      It does seem unusual for an author to come back after a long absence with a complete change of genre. If there were characters like Lady Eleanor in her crime novels as well, I’m not surprised you were put off reading any more!

  2. FictionFan says:

    I did read and enjoy a couple of her early books, but kinda went off them after a while – credibility issues, if I remember correctly. Thanks for the “To be continued” warning – one of my pet hates in books. If I ever read this, I’ll wait till the series is finished…

    • Helen says:

      That’s probably a good idea. I don’t mind having to wait for the next book (I’m not sure if I really want to read it anyway) but I wish I had known before I started that this wasn’t a standalone.

  3. cirtnecce says:

    I do find the premises very interesting but I also agree that connecting Plague with rats and hygiene seems very modern instead of 14th century. However, I am still hooked and will look around for a copy. Thank you for the heads up on the Sequel; I do not like “series’ per se, but then the first of the series always determines whether to plod forward or not! Excellent review as always!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it was interesting and I think it’s worth reading, even though I didn’t love it. I don’t mind reading books that are part of a series, but I wish I’d known that this wasn’t a complete story before I started it – I was surprised when I came to the end and saw the words ‘to be continued’!

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    Morbid or not, I was also really interested in the Black Death setting, so I was tempted by this when I saw it on Netgalley too. However not recognising the author I managed to resist the urge to request it… just!

    • Helen says:

      I recognised the author’s name but knew nothing about her books, so didn’t know what to expect. I think it was worth reading because of the fascinating setting and time period, but I’m not sure I liked it enough to want to continue with the sequel.

    • Helen says:

      Lady Eleanor is one of the nastiest characters I’ve come across for a long time! And yes, one of the things I often dislike about historical fiction is when historical characters are given modern day attitudes and sensibilities.

  5. buriedinprint says:

    How interesting: I used to gulp her crime novels, as I’d just discovered the genre shortly before she became quite the thing. This is the last kind of story I’d’ve guessed she’d be interested in writing. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. Another I’ve read which has the plague at its heart is Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, which is long and character-driven and I ended up enjoying it a great deal.

    • Helen says:

      It does seem an unusual sort of book from someone so well known as a crime author. I suppose she just wanted to do something different. Connie Willis is an author I’ve been interested in reading for a long time. Thanks for reminding me about her. 🙂

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