The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

This is the sequel to The Last Hours, which followed the fortunes of a group of people during the Black Death which reached England in 1348. When I finished the first novel last year, I wasn’t sure whether I had liked it enough to want to read any more, but in the end I couldn’t resist finding out how the story would conclude.

The Turn of Midnight picks up where The Last Hours left off, with the people of Develish in Dorsetshire living in quarantine while the plague rages across the land. The reason their community has survived largely intact while others around them have been wiped out is because of the precautions taken by Lady Anne, who gathered her people within the moat that surrounds her manor house and burned the bridges, cutting them off from contact with the outside world. Now that winter has come and food supplies are running low, Lady Anne’s loyal serf Thaddeus Thurkell, accompanied by several other young men from Develish, has crossed the moat and ventured into the countryside to see what he can find.

Despite the strong leadership skills of Lady Anne and the intelligence and courage of Thaddeus, Develish has no lord, Lady Anne’s husband Sir Richard having succumbed to the plague early in the previous novel. This has left the demesne in a vulnerable position, so together Thaddeus and Lady Anne come up with a plan to protect the people of Develish…but if they fail Thaddeus could find himself in serious danger.

I’m glad I decided to read this book because I enjoyed it quite a bit more than The Last Hours. It feels faster paced, with more going on, and of course, being the second of a pair of two novels, it has a much more satisfying ending. Where the previous novel was set mainly in and around the manor of Develish, this one has a wider scope, concentrating less on Lady Anne and her family and more on Thaddeus. Towards the end of The Last Hours I felt that Thaddeus and his companions were wandering aimlessly in the countryside without much happening, but this time they have adventure after adventure as they explore desolate towns and villages, make new friends and new enemies, and carry out charades and deceptions.

My main criticism of this book is that I still couldn’t really believe in either Thaddeus or Lady Anne as realistic 14th century characters. As I mentioned in my review of The Last Hours, I found their attitudes and thought processes far too modern and wasn’t at all convinced that they, unlike the rest of the population, could have had such an accurate understanding of how the Black Death was spread and how to protect themselves from it. I was also disappointed that Lady Anne’s stepdaughter, Lady Eleanor, is reduced to such a minor role in this book. Eleanor was very much the villain of the previous novel, but near the end some reasons were given for her terrible behaviour and there were hints that she might have been about to turn a corner. She is certainly much more likeable in this second book, but sadly the transformation of her character is not explored in any depth which I thought was a wasted opportunity.

This is such an interesting period of history to read about, though, and I did find the portrayal of a country devastated by plague vivid and convincing, even if the characters were not. Minette Walters is much better known as a crime author and has moved into new territory with these two novels; I’ll be curious to see whether she writes any more historical fiction in the future.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

13 thoughts on “The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

  1. whatmeread says:

    That’s a good point about the thought processes. I think you were supposed to believe that Lady Anne was more humane because of her upbringing in France and in a convent, but I’m guessing there wouldn’t have been that much difference. I’ll have to decide whether to read this one or not, as I was even less impressed by the first book than you were. On the other hand, I thought the first one was from a trilogy, so the thought that there is only one more to read might make me try it.

    • Helen says:

      I liked Lady Anne, but she just didn’t feel like a 14th century woman to me. I hope you enjoy this more than the first book, if you do decide to read it.

  2. April Munday says:

    I’m obsessed with the fourteenth century and the Black Death is a pivotal point in that time, but the reviews put me off The Last Hours. I’ve only read one book about the Black Death that worked really well and that was about a historian who travelled back in time. The historian reflected the reader’s modern attitudes allowing all the fourteenth-century characters to behave more like fourteenth-century people.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, that sounds as though it would work. I just can’t believe that any fourteenth century person would have had the depth of understanding of the Black Death that the characters in this book apparently had. A time-travelling historian would be a different matter, of course!

      • April Munday says:

        It’s a thin line, I think. If the characters are straight out of the fourteenth century, they have very little in common with the modern reader. If they’re too aware of cleanliness and the way in which diseases are transmitted, they stand out from the other characters like a sore thumb. Sadly, it’s a common trope in books about the Black Death, because there has to be a reason why the protagonist survives.

        Should you ever want to read it, and I can recomment it, the book is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s certainly the most moving novel I’ve read about the Black Death.

  3. buriedinprint says:

    This is such an interesting question, how an author can make an historical set of characters seem relevant and accessible to present-day readers, how to find the line between accuracy and engagement. I’m curious,too, about how Walters has made the jump from crime fiction to historical fiction!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it must be difficult to find the right balance. I don’t think I’ve ever read her crime fiction, so I don’t know how her historical fiction compares. It does seem like a complete change of direction.

  4. Constance says:

    I completely missed these! I have read most of her crime fiction, which (to me at least) varies in readability; maybe she has just gotten too dark for me. It startles me to see this series is published in the US by Harlequin’s Mira imprint but that does include suspense/crime.

    I did a presentation at 13 or so on the Black Death in school. Trying to convey contagion, I enthusiastically tossed a handful of black pepper at my audience, causing havoc and annoyance. These days I would probably be suspended! I also read from Anya Seton. My teacher was bemused by the whole thing.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read any of her crime fiction, so I don’t know how similar or different these books are in terms of writing style etc. It seems to be a surprising change of direction for her. I’ve always found the Black Death a fascinating subject, though! Your presentation sounds fun. 🙂

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