Our book today is The Bishop Must Die by Michael Jecks (Headline Publishing Group), like a newborn basset hound, it’s got many handicaps to overcome in life. Right there on the cover, it’s called a ‘Knights Templar mystery,’ which in all right-thinking people will summon up specters of right-wing weirdness, ‘birther’ madness, ‘tea parties,’ and Tom Cruise conspiracy theories. With the possible exception of the Scottish Highlanders, no small historical sub-group has been the subject of so much contemporary distortion as the Templars, a do-nothing band of nincompoops (at the best of times) who’ve recently been transformed by thriller writers into a super-sect charged with guarding every ‘last’ secret known (unknown?) to man, from the Holy Grail to the True Cross to the Baby Jesus Diapers.
Even if prospective readers manage to ignore that banner of conspiratorial weirdness, they’ve still got many a hurdle to leap. They’ll be informed early on, for instance, that it is Michael Jecks’ twenty-eighth installment in his Knights Templar series. Twenty-eight! Readers not already following the series can expect Ozark-level inbreeding by this point, with whole chapters composed of in-joke references to conversations the author had with chosen half-dozen super-fans he met through his long-defunct website discussion forum and with whom he now meets regularly in the back room of the local pub, with a sign on the door that says “No admittance.” Joe Weber, Lois Bujold, Terry Pratchett – so many writers have followed this path of degeneration, slowly revealing over time that what they really wanted from their writing careers was not readers but a court (one of Pratchett’s 450 books, Guards! Guards! will stand for many decades as the ultimate example of this kind of prostitution).
But let’s say an adventurous reader manages to ignore both those potential warning signs and press on. They next come to a Cast of Characters that’s over 30 names long. They come to a two-page glossary featuring terms like annuellar, corrody, seisin, and paindemaigne. There may even have been a line saying “you will be tested on this” – I’m not sure.
And the first line of the book itself is “The stench was unbelievable.”
So you might be forgiven for thinking that The Bishop Must Die is a pure Jecks-fest written exclusively for his (presumably) many fans, that between those fans, libraries, and various historical societies, Headline figures they’ll recoup enough of their publishing costs to justify printing the thing in the first place. You might be forgiven for thinking this isn’t a book you can simply pick up and read.
Happily, I can report that this isn’t the case (happily because I hate the idea of such ‘no admittance’ books – hate the fact that they take space, time, and money away from books and authors who really deserve all three, hate that the most vital of creative activities could become so onanistic, and hate especially the gritty, defensive Chihuahua pride of the practitioners). Despite those 27 previous books closing in all around him, Michael Jecks is somehow still writing for a general audience, and the members of that general audience who fancy historical murder mysteries set in medieval England could do much, much worse than to give The Bishop Must Die a try.
It’s true that there’s exposition aplenty, but given how Insider Baseball this thing could be by its 28th installment, wouldn’t you rather have some well-incorporated exposition than the reverse? Jecks has a sure hand at working clarifications like this into his ongoing narrative:
The past year had seen confusion over England’s control of the French possessions. There had been wrangling for a long time over the rights of the King of France to the King of England’s great Duchy of Aquitaine. The bitter enmity between the French and the English sprang from ancient causes; ever since the Duke of Normandy’ had invaded and taken the English crown for his own, the French Kings had deprecated the presumption of England’s kings. The presumption was escalated by the warmonger Richard I, Coeur-de-Lion, who forced the French King to build his magnificent fortress, the Louvre, in order to protect his city against a potential attack from Richard’s Norman territory.
That narrative takes place in 1326 during the sixteent year of the reign of King Edward II. His queen Isabella, ensconced in France with her lover Roger Mortimer, is threatening invasion, and Edward summons all his faithful knights to readiness – including Sir Baldwin, Keeper of the King’s Peace and hero of many Jecks novels. But Sir Baldwin has other things on his plate – it turns out someone is sending anonymous threats against the Treasurer of England, Bishop Stapledon, who (in cahoots with the infamous Hugh Despenser) has disgraced and pauperized many a good man in his career. Too many, in fact: the Bishop (Jecks makes the extremely intelligent move of keeping this character thoroughly unlikeable – justice seems so much more heroic when it’s offered to someone so undeserving) himself sardonically points out to Baldwin how hopeless his task is:
“Sir Baldwin,” the bishop expostulated, his hands thrown out in a gesture of openness, “how can I count them? Be reasonable! In London alone, I was hated by the commonality. All loathed me for I was the man who instigated the Grand Eyre [“this was the term for the circuit of a king’ judge as he travelled from one county to the next” – cf the glossary] of five years ago. It wasn’t my fault, but it was imposed on London while I had the position of Treasurer, so all blamed me. It is natural. Now, do you wish me to bring you a list of all the thousands of men who live in London? Of course not! Perhaps you would like me to compile a full audit of those who have cause to dislike my exactions in York, or Winchester? It would leave you with many tens of thousands. That is the scale of the problem, you see. Any number could seek to assassinate me.”
No, despite all the obstacles, this is a very entertaining book. If you see it on a bookstore table (I believe it’s published in June in America) or at the library, don’t be put off by inbreeding, Knights Templar, or a touch of paindemaigne.