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Historical Mysteries

The Traitor's Tale, Margaret Frazer, Berkley Prime Crime, $24.95.

Readers familiar with Margaret Frazer - and after 19 books, there are quite a few - no doubt already are fond of her straightfoward nun, Dame Frevisse. More recently, Frazer introduced the character of Joliffe, a sometime player and now agent of the Duke of York. This gives both Frevisse and Frazer far greater range in telling her stories, as some of the things Joliffe does would be absolutely off limits for a nun. Frazer can thus combine the contemplative deductive skills of Frevisse with the more action filled behavior of Joliffe, creating a full bodied story.

She begins it with a bang, as Joliffe enters a beleaguered London, a city being closed down to outsiders to quell violence. He ends up unwillingly in the thick of a battle, as he is commanded by York to get a certain letter from one Matthew Gough. Gough agrees to give Joliffe the letter, but tucks it away inside his armor, forcing Joliffe to follow him into battle. Gough is quickly killed, but not, Joliffe thinks, as the result of the fighting but deliberately. He ends up many days later at the household of Lady Alice, widow of the Duke of Suffolk, and cousin to Dame Frevisse, who is also there. Frazer is expert in recreating the kind of uncertainty and tension that surely existed in Britain in 1450, as the lords around King Henry clamored for power. As she puts it:
"All the grounds for men's angers were still there, unchanged - the greed of the lords around the king, the breakdown of justice anywhere the Duke of Suffolk's men had held power, the lost French war".
This is as succinct a description as any of the situation surrounding King Henry and the whole of England at the time; in only 5 years, the War of the Roses would break out.

Frazer is a master, I think, because she combines her love and knowledge of history with the true skills of a mystery writer. As there are many linked deaths surrounding Suffolk's, and Frevisse and Joliffe try to figure out what is going on (and warn the Duke of York), the McGuffin that holds the story together is a sealed letter written by Suffolk shortly before his death. The denouement is a meeting with York himself, and having kept him off canvas for so long Frazer deftly manages to have his appearance be regal, powerful and mysterious all at once. It's extremely satisfactory. Of course, for those of us not as versed in the events of 1450 as we might be, the helpful note at the end of the book is more than welcome. Here's to hoping for at least 19 more books from this talented author.

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