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Historical Mysteries

The Bastard's Tale, Margaret Frazer, Berkley Prime Crime, $6.99.

It's not so often that the twelfth book in a series is a surprise - and not a bad surprise, but a good surprise. Frazer's series, centering on Dame Frevisse, a nun, is rich with the detail, politics and lifestyle of 15th century life. For a nun, Frevisse gets around; in this novel, she's been called to Bury St. Edmund's by the Bishop of Winchester to learn what she can of court life while "attending" on her cousin Alice, wife of the Duke of Suffolk. There's a parliament going on in Bury St. Edmund's, so the King and Queen are in attendance (in this novel, Henry VI and his wife, Margaret), as well as Suffolk, York, and the anticipated arrival of the Duke of Gloucester, closest to the King by blood, and reportedly bringing an army with him. Frevisse is trying to learn the truth to this rumor.

Frazer doesn't choose to tell this novel through the lens of the mighty, however, but through the lens of others who, like Frevisse, occupying a safe middle ground, can move about more or less unobserved and unnoticed. Frevisse is joined by a certain minor Bishop, Reynold Pecock; the bastard son of Gloucester, Arteys; and the sometime player and sometime spy, Joliffe, introduced in The Clerk's Tale. These four make for compelling reading - I looked forward to the appearance of each one on the canvas.

What makes this book a surprise (along with other things) is that it isn't really a mystery - for want of a better word, I'd say it's political/psychological suspense. There are two murders in the book, but the murderers' identities are never in doubt - instead, it's Frazer's skill in drawing the emotional lines between all these intertwined characters that makes this book a surprise. The grief that Suffolk's wife, Alice, feels at her husband's behavior; the grief and uncertainty of Arteys at his father's fate; and the scholarly and dispassionate thinking of the practical Bishop Pecock, who is a wonderful match for the equally practical Frevisse, all make this book fascinating.

The last chapter contains some of the strongest, most memorable writing I've read in a mystery this year. When Frazer goes inside the head of one of the characters as he's taken to Tyburn to be executed, I defy you to either put the book down, or forget what you've read. As I finished it at the store, I began to find customers coming in to be an intrusive annoyance! While a rough knowledge of the political history of England in the 15th century may be an asset at the beginning of the book, by the end the characters, historical and otherwise, have become so real that it won't matter. I can't recommend this book highly enough; it stands wonderfully on its own even without having read the rest of the series.

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