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Historical Mysteries

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

Margaret Frazer is on a rip. Each book is almost better and stronger than the last, and it's almost a privilege to be on the journey as the skillful Frazer takes her heroine, Dame Frevisse, all over Britain solving crimes. Each novel stands alone so much that it's not really necessary to have read the one before it, as Frevisse, a nun, is often called away from the convent for one reason or another, always a believable one. This novel has an especially strong premise: as the story opens, we as readers are plunged into the healthy chaos of the Helyngton family - a loving father (Edward) and mother (Christiana), two daughters, and the loyal and affectionate Gervys, brother to Christiana. While there's a hint of the disruption to come - Edward is obviously ill - and the other family members (brothers and sisters-in-law) are not so cordial - the Helyngtons seem strong enough to weather whatever may come. Frazer, however, is hardly a sentimental writer. The story then fast forwards to Edward's death: Christiana's brother-in-law, Laurence, has forcibly taken her children from her and claimed wardship over them, while sending Christiana, grieving and weakened, to a convent where she is not even allowed to converse with the nuns. The convent, of course, is Frevisse's.

Long time readers of this series will know that the nuns are kind and well meaning, but we are seeing this story through Christiana's lens, and she is suspicious and afraid of the nuns, who she sees as jailers, not allies. Only after a period of time do a few of the nuns (including, of course, Frevisse) begin to reach out to her, as well as trying to lessen her restrictions (almost constant prayer, a restricted diet, as well as being forced to lie face down before the altar during church services). Only when Laurence shows up begging Christiana to reason with her daughter, whom he is trying to marry off to his unpleasant son, is her imprisonment at the convent ended. She agrees to go with Laurence to discuss the matter with her daughter; the nuns, in the form of Domina Elizabeth and Frevisse, insist on going with her, as the bishop hasn't released them from their assigned task of watching over her.

The politics of the time begin to come into play when Christiana returns home - she stays with friends who are allied with the Duke of Suffolk (who happens to be married to Frevisse's cousin, Alice). Gervys is in alliance with the Duke of York, Suffolk's rival, who eventually (but not for the purposes of this story) wrests the power of the crown away from the weak and ineffectual King Henry VI. Because of the different alliances, and because of the fact that before he dies, Edward gave Gervys and Christiana joint control over a secret that would be damaging to Suffolk, what happens next is either politically, or personally, based. Since there are motives for each thread, sorting them out becomes difficult, but luckily the clear thinking Frevisse is present to help us understand what is going on as first one, then another character is murdered.

Having met Margaret Frazer several times I was somewhat taken aback by the rather gory ending to the story - not because I found it objectionable - I was just surprised that such a mild mannered and pleasant woman could write so bloody a scene. Not only is the final scene bloody, it's cathartic, and Frazer even has a moral conundrum she leaves the reader with at the end, with no Frevisse to sort it out for you. You'll have to do that for yourself. (Robin)

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