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Sarah Hawkswood

WOLF AT THE DOOR . . . Between the covers

BRADECOTE

s-l400Rather like Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s White Rabbit, I am always late. Late, that is, to many excellent crime fiction series that have been on the go for some years. I often come to them a few books in and, having enjoyed what I have read, try to solve the dilemma, which is this. Do I abandon everything else on the TBR pile to read the earlier books, or do I shrug my shoulders and convince myself that the books will always be there, and that I will get round to them “at some point”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about being a book reviewer. Publishers send me free books on the understanding that I will read them and that my reviews will help to sell the novels. That’s all good, but one gets locked in to a reading timetable that can be very unforgiving, particularly when blog tours are involved. Reading for pure pleasure and relaxation has to take a back seat, I’m afraid.

That long digression is a background to this review of the latest Bradecote and Catchpoll novel by Sarah Hawkswood. I read – and loved – two of the series, River of Sins and Blood Runs Thicker, and you can read my reviews by clicking the links. Now, the ninth in the series, Wolf At The Door, is with us, and it is every bit as good as the other two have read..

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For people who are even later arrivals to the party than I, we are in 12th century Worcestershire. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff of the county, and is of noble birth with a degree of hauteur, while Sergeant Catchpoll is Worcester through-and-through, rough and ready, but very street-wise. Walkelin – the apprentice – is something of a ‘gofer’, but is bright, perceptive, and not afraid to speak his mind. This story begins with the discovery of a man who has met a violent death. His face has been removed and his throat has been ripped out. Extensive damage to his limbs suggests an assault by a violent animal. A wolf, perhaps? But even in the Royal hunting Forest of Feckenham1, wolves have not been seen for many a year.

Hugh Bradecote is on what we could call paternity leave. He is particularly anxious about his heavily pregnant second wife, as his first wife died in childbirth. With some villagers of Feckenham convinced that Durand Wuduweard 2 was savaged by a wolf, and the more credulous of them even believing that the killing was the work of a werewolf, Bradecote has to return to duty.

We are some half way into the book before the officers have any concept of who – and what – is responsible for the death of Durand. More corpses and a savage attack on a landowner prompt an even greater sense of urgency to the quest, but then Bradecote, Catchpoll, Walkelin and their boss De Beachamp finally realise that the motive for the crimes is one of the oldest and deadliest – revenge, bitterly fermented and long standing.

One of the qualities of a natural and gifted storyteller is the ability to provide atmosphere. Sarah Hawkswood recreates a cold and grey Worcestershire at the onset of November. Many of the poorer folk will struggle to survive the next four months and will succumb to cold, hunger, disease – or a mixture of all three. The wolves may have mostly disappeared, but the forest is a dark and unforgiving place for the people who have hacked out space within it for their precarious lives. The grimly authentic setting aside, this is a bloody good detective story from one of our finest writers. Wolf at the Door is published by Allison & Busby and is out on 19th August.

  1. Feckenham Forest was a royal forest, centred on the village of Feckenham, covering large parts of Worcestershire and west Warwickshire. It was not entirely wooded, nor entirely the property of the King. Rather, the King had legal rights over game, wood and grazing within the forest, and special courts imposed harsh penalties when these rights were violated.
  2. A Wuduweard (old English) was the warden of a forest. It is probably the origin of the surname Woodward.

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Blood Runs Thicker . . . Between the covers

BRT HEADERThis is the eighth book in a very popular series set in 12th century Worcestershire. I am a latecomer to the party, but I thoroughly enjoyed the previous book River of Sins, and you can read my review by clicking this link. Now, Under-Sheriff Hugh Bradecote and his grizzled ally Serjeant Catchpoll – along with apprentice lad Walkelin – investigate the murder of an irascible and little-loved nobleman, Osbern de Lench.

The late man had a habit of sitting on his horse atop a small hill near his house and gazing at his land. It was said that doing so calmed him down when he was in one of his more wrathful moods. On the fateful day the horse comes back alone and a search party finds de Lench stabbed to death. His family was certainly not a happy one. Baldwin, his son by his first wife (who died in a mysterious riding accident) has the same choleric temper as his father. There is a second son – the result of de Lench marrying again, but Hamo is very different from his half brother. He is studious and solitary and probably has what we now call Asperger’s Syndrome.

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Incidentally, there are three real-life villages near Worcester which rejoice under the names Church Lench, Ab Lench and Rous Lench, but I believe Osbern de Lench exists only in Sarah Hawkwood’s vivid and blessed imagination. Back to the novel, and Bradecote & Catchpoll learn that de Lench had ‘history’ with other local landowners, but was this enough to link any of them to his death? And was Fulk, the family Steward providing home comforts to Lady de Lench, a woman not unused to being roughly dealt with by her husband? The seemingly pointless murder of Mother Winflaed, a harmless woman who ministers to the villagers with her herbal knowledge – and also delivers its babies – only adds to the confusion.

The ingredients that make up the chemistry between the three investigators is cleverly worked. Young Walkelin is callow, but clever and inquisitive, while Catchpoll’s world-wearness is an excellent counter balance to Bradecote’s more lofty idealism.

By no means is this a preachy or political novel, but Sarah Hawkswood has some pertinent points to make – via Hugh Bradecote – about the treatment and role of women, and the very real perils of childbirth. As a man of advanced years I can find much to moan about in current society, but modern obstetrics (at least in the western world) is something for which we should all be eternally grateful.

I am very much an amateur book reviewer, and there are probably hundreds of us who love to read, and are grateful for publishers and publicists who trust us to deal fairly with the books they send us. One of the downsides is that there is always a To Be Read pile, with deadlines to meet, and little chance to sit back and read purely for pleasure. I am determined, however, to find time to catch up with the previous books in this series. If they are all as good as this one, then my time will not be wasted

 This novel is thoroughly immersive and the blend of classic whodunnit, gritty historical detail and the sense of a glorious landscape now all but vanished is utterly beguiling. Blood Runs Thicker is published by Allison & Busby, and is available now.

RIVER OF SINS . . . Between the covers

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A little while ago I reviewed a novel set in Worcestershire – it was the beginning of WW2, and it centred on the fictional village of Ambridge and, of course, featured The Archers. History of a very different kind now. River of Sins is the seventh in a series of historical mysteries written by Sarah Hawkswood set in and around the city of Worcester in the 12th century.

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I am new to the series but I enjoyed the fact that we have that most dependable of crime fiction tropes – a pair of investigators. There is a slight variation a theme in this case, as they are aided by an intrepid young apprentice. The dynamic between the three works well. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff, and is of noble birth with a degree of hauteur, while Sergeant Catchpoll is Worcester through-and-through, rough and ready, but very street-wise. Walkelin – the apprentice – is something of a ‘gofer’, but is bright, perceptive, and not afraid to speak his mind.

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The novel begins with a woman being brutally done to death on a small island in the River Severn on the northern outskirts of Worcester. We learn that the woman and her killer are acquainted, but just how, and what the significance is, only unfolds with the investigation.

The dead woman is Ricolde, known throughout the city as The Whore of Worcester. She was widely despised by the gentlewomen of the city, while being used by their husbands, but as Bradecote and Catchpoll discover, there was another dimension to Ricolde. Educated, and perfectly content to talk the night through with men who demanded nothing other than her company, she also gave money to the church to be used to ameliorate the misery of other women of the street who were less resilient than she.

The investigators struggle to find a motive for the murder. Moral disapproval doesn’t usually lead to someone being dismembered with a woodsman’s axe, but does the clue to Ricolde’s death lie deep in her past, and has it to do with the horrific scars on the soles of her feet, inflicted decades earlier?

Sarah Hawkswood’s Worcester is a place we can see, hear, feel, breathe – and smell – as the mystery unfolds. What is the River of the title? It is the River Severn, broad and deep, a source of fresh food, a vital artery of transport at a time when roads were just beaten dirt, but also a means of escape and concealment. With only the most rudimentary forensic skills available, Bradecote and Catchpoll must rely on the most basic and time-honoured methods of detection, means, motive and opportunity. This is an excellent detective story which also gives us an intriguing glimpse into a long-lost world.

River of Sins is published by Allison & Busby and will be out in paperback and as a Kindle on 19th November.

Hawkswood books

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