Last month I spotted an intriguing tweet from new publisher Head of Zeus. Book bloggers who liked historical fiction were encouraged to get in contact about a history mystery project. It sounded very intriguing, and something that might suit me very well indeed. So I did get in contact. This was very much the correct move to make. Head of Zeus are publishing three series of historical mysteries, all of which look great. The first that caught my eye is the Medieval Mystery series by Priscilla Royal. Wine of Violence is the first book, set in a religious house in 1270. I love the medieval period, and think it makes a great setting for a murder mystery. Think Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels and you’re not a million miles away. But, the extra twist here is that Tyndal Priory is a joint house, home to both monks and nuns, and it is presided over by a Prioress. A female main character is manna to my soul, and Prioress Eleanor is a worthy lead. Despite her youth she is wise, thoughtful, kind, and worldly enough to see to the heart of people.
As the book opens, Eleanor is taking the reins of her new job. She knows she is not the priory’s choice but rather a political appointment. She is determined to prove herself however as she is a nun by choice and inclination, dedicated to her calling. Her first meeting with her new charges is not made any easier by the disappearance of the one monk she had hoped to call friend, Brother Rupert. His absence is an inauspicious start to her tenure, but not nearly as inauspicious as the poor man’s murder and mutilation. Eleanor finds herself in the middle of a baffling murder inquiry. As she begins to unravel the secrets of Tyndal she too finds herself in danger.
I thoroughly enjoyed the murder mystery plot; it was convoluted enough that I didn’t easily guess the outcome, whilst retaining credibility. There are plenty of potential suspects, all with intriguing histories of their own. Brother Thomas is particularly interesting. He arrives at the Priory just after Eleanor, with a barely adequate tale of why he is there. He doesn’t look or even act very much like a monk. We are privy to his secret shame, but no one else is. He struggles to keep his business private and his reason for being at the Priory under wraps. He is a brilliant foil for Eleanor. He respects her intellect, and she surprises him with her understanding of people. But he is utterly ignorant of the lust he has stirred in her heart. She battles heroically to control her feelings, but his presence is rather a distraction. Eleanor is a very human nun, with feelings and emotions that she must tame to maintain focus during this difficult time.
The daily running of the establishment cannot be neglected either, and the Prioress has a formidable task in reasserting the authority of her position and taking control of the finances. With a murderer within the community’s walls, knowing who to trust is not easy. She relies on her instinct and experience, both very much needed. She also has a sense of humour that helps her through. Winning the inmates of Tyndal over is as important and finding the perpetrator of the very dark deeds.
Wine of Violence is a pretty quick read, it’s also a good one with a very appealing cast of characters. There’s is a fair amount of ‘liberal’ thinking allowed to some of them, which may not strike as strictly medieval initially. I think Royal is right in her assessment though, that there was a wide range of attitudes to moral matters, then as now. Regulations and laws are only ever part of the story. Very occasionally I felt the tone was a little bit lecturing, as background information was slipped in, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the book. Overall I thought it was good fun, I loved the setting and the storyline, and I’m looking forward to Book 2.