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Historical Mysteries

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

Margaret Frazer is one of the closest present day writers to Agatha Christie that we have. While her books are set in the 15th century, the skills she has as a mystery writer utilizing the locked room or small circle of suspects formula perfected by Christie, are practically matchless. What's new here is both setting and the way she is able to use character development - in a way Christie never did - to make the crimes make sense. In The Hunter's Tale, her graceful and moving description of a dysfunctional family is at the heart of the story. Like many golden age mysteries - and here I'm thinking specifically of Christianna Brand - my mind jumped from one suspect to another, while wanting none of them to be guilty.

Frazer has also, through now 13 novels, believably drawn in her main character, Dame Frevisse, a nun, into the story. In this novel Frevisse is folded in when one of the students at her convent, Ursula, is called away when her father dies suddenly. Frevisse is somewhat unaffected by this, but when Ursula and her mother, Lady Anneys, return to the convent, she becomes more drawn into the mystery of their family life - and when another family member suddenly dies, she accompanies Ursula and Anneys back home as a both a buffer and a comfort. Frevisse being Frevisse, however, her brain doesn't simply switch off. Unable to be merely a comfort, she's at work all the time trying to figure out what the dynamics of this family were that could have blown it so fatally apart.

Frazer is far from a dark writer, however, and her tribute to a mother's steadfast and practical love is one of the lynchpins of this story, and it's a strong and moving one. The end of the novel is not so much a resolution as an inevitable discovery - and if we as readers haven't caught on, it's our own fault. The clues were there all along. I can't recommend this series highly enough, both to history mystery fans but also to fans of the classic locked room mystery. It's still, happily, being done well. I'm already looking forward to Frevisse's next adventure.

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