Confession time. I try to be honest and objective in my reviews, but there are certain authors who are so sure-footed that I know their novels will not disappoint, even before I have read the first page. One such is Sarah Hawkswood and her beguiling Bradecote series. They are not complicated. Central figure is Hugh Bradecote, noble of birth and Under-Sheriff of Worcestershire in the middle years of the 12th Century. I suppose he is the early medieval equivalent of a modern Detective Inspector and – like them – he has underlings. Bradecote is supported by the grizzled and worldly Sergeant Catchpoll and the Under Sergeant – a callow but rapidly maturing young man called Walkelin. My earlier reviews of the series can be found by clicking the link below:
This story begins in April 1145 with a terrible miscarriage of justice in a tiny hamlet called Ripple, the southernmost parish of Worcestershire. It is a real place, a beautiful village just north of Tewksbury. A young ploughman called Thorgar is about to be hanged for murder. He was found in the village church, crouched over the lifeless body of the priest, Father Edmund. Despite his protestations that he is unscyldig (Middle English – innocent), at the insistence of the Reeve, a man called Selewine, the villagers bear him away and he is hanged from an ancient oak tree. Thorgar’s sister Osgyth makes her way to Worcester and reports what she sees as the murder of her brother, which prompts Bradecote, Catchpoll and Walkelin to ride south to investigate.
They soon discover that Father Edmund’s death is linked to two deadly sins. The first is avarice; Thorgar, while ploughing has unearthed a treasure trove of silver artifacts – a priceless chalice, some coins and ornamental buckles dating back to Saxon times. The second is lust; this is far more sinister, as Father Edmund has been using his priestly influence to abuse young girls in Ripple, thus giving every angry father a motive for striking the ungodly cleric down.
Bradecote and his men eventually expose not one murderer – but two – and there is a macabre finale when the respective killers are forced to disinter the mortal remains of their victims and take them to be given a Christian burial. Apart from the powerfully evocative atmosphere, this is a bloody good detective novel, but particularly impressive is the way Sara Hawkswood handles the dialogue. I suspect no-one has the faintest idea about how people spoke to each other in the 12th century, but the author establishes a style and sticks to it. As a long-time critic of what I consider to be botched attempts at authentic historical conversation in novels, I found Sarah Hawkswood’s method to be both satisfying and convincing.
EM Forster’s most celebrated – and enigmatic – dictum was, “Only connect.” Taking him literally, my goodness how Sarah Hawkswood connects. She connects us to the wonderful landscape of the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire borders, overlooked by the golden heights of the Malvern Hills. She connects us to the powerful – and sometimes destructive – presence of the River Severn. She connects us to a time when poor people lived hard-scrabble lives, totally dependent upon the whims of nature and weather and almost umbilically bound to the central focus of every town, village and hamlet – the church. She connects us to a world, perhaps not “better” than the one we live in, but one which had a firmer grasp of natural justice, common sense and spirituality. Too Good To Hang is a further gem in the crown of what is one of the best current historical series – the Bradecote novels. It is published by Allison & Busby and will be out on 18th May.