Priscilla Royal has brought her fine historical and story-telling skills to a heartbreaking and complex period in medieval England: the treatment of Jews under Edward I. What I love best about Royal’s mysteries is their ability to hold me in captivated enjoyment while encompassing a subtle and nuanced historical world. She never simplifies the issues and ideas we can glean from the period, but your reading never feels burdened by this sophistication and depth.
Lord knows, the persecution of Jews in Edward’s England could get dreary in the hands of a lesser writer. Or it could get preachy or utterly anachronistic with characters spouting modern tolerant views to assuage the author’s discomfort at presenting such a shameful moment in time. Royal avoids these pitfalls. Over the course of this series Royal has developed two profoundly admirable human beings in Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas. Both are flawed and wracked with doubts, which makes them all the more likeable and their failures forgivable. Since we trust these two to act from justice and kindness in the long run, when they choose to stand up for and protect a Jewish family at risk of mob violence, we do not find this surprising. And lest we fear modern sensibilities have slipped in, even these most compassionate characters express a fervent desire for the conversion of these Jews as the ultimate best thing for them. That’s as far as the good medieval Christian heart can go and Royal recognizes that it is a kindness in its time, however harsh it may feel to most modern minds. Thomas, with his inner doubts about God and his innate outsider status as a man drawn to love other men at a time when that was viewed as a sin, comes close at times to recognizing that his and Eleanor’s goodwill is too conditional and circumscribed, but he never voices those doubts aloud.
On one level there’s the excitement of sorting out who is murdering people in Tyndal and the intense project of keeping safe this Jewish family while investigating them as the most popular nominees for suspects. The reader also savors a completely unconventional love tale which will have you biting nails, wanting to slap both the man and the woman involved for their foolishness and somehow liking them immensely at the same time. Isn’t that how real people are? Oh, and if lately you’ve been thinking about the limitations of faith, the beauty of bee-keeping and the natural world, the violence of controlling parenting, or, of course, the sanctity of hate, you’ll find plenty to ponder in this book while enjoying yourself.