Reviewed by Rod McLary
Minette Walters is perhaps better known for her series of crime novels written between 1992 and 2007. Her first three books won major prizes. Different from other crime writers – think Agatha Christie, PD James, Ruth Rendell and Ian Rankin – Walters did not create a series character. This allowed her the freedom to range through various settings and place her novels where the location supported the story.
Her last crime novel was The Chameleon’s Shadow in 2007 and aficionados of her writing missed her presence in the bookstores.
However, in 2017, Walters moved to a new genre – the historical novel and The Last Hours was published. It was set in 14th century England at the time of the Black Death [bubonic plague] and focused on a small demesne [a piece of land attached to a manor and retained by the owner for his own use] named Develish in Dorseteshire. The Catholic Church believed the plague to be a punishment from God and required the people to confess daily to protect themselves. Those who died were considered to be sinful and destined for Hell.
However, Lady Anne had another strategy to prevent the plague from causing the deaths of her people – she brought all the serfs within the gates of Develish and allowed no one else to enter. By doing so, she brought about the death of her brutal husband who happened to be outside Develish when the gates were closed. His death, which her step-daughter Lady Eleanor believed to be deliberately planned by Lady Anne, fractured the already tenuous relationship between the two. Her reason for closing the gates against all others was based on her belief that the plague was not from God but was somehow related to rats and fleas. As any explanation other than God’s punishment was seen as blasphemous, Lady Anne was unable to voice her belief – but she could and did act on it. By doing so, she saved her people.
However, as 1349 approaches, the people of Develish cannot remain forever behind the gates. Bravely, a self-educated and intelligent serf – Thaddeus Thurkell – and five companions leave the safety of the demesne to explore Dorseteshire to establish if others survived the plague. Thus, The Last Hours concludes.
Fortunately for the reader, The Last Hours was the first book of a duology. The second is The Turn of Midnight.
The Turn of Midnight begins with Thaddeus’ success in his raids on livestock and animals and food are brought back to Develish. He plans a further more extensive expedition to establish how the shire is faring. He also wishes to purchase a demesne of his own and to do that he needs to convince everyone that he is a Lord. No small task for a serf but he has intelligence, wit, strength and an imposing stature. The adventures and risks Thaddeus experiences form the balance of the book. Needless to say, the road to his own demesne is not an easy one.
All the familiar themes of Walters’ crime novels – ‘isolation, family dysfunction, rejection, justice and revenge’ – are present in this novel. Lead characters in Walters’ novels are often intelligent, articulate women who are well-prepared to take on opposing forces when necessary. Lady Anne is no exception – perhaps a feminist ahead of her time, she believes in equality between the landowners and the serfs, between men and women and between high-born and low-born. She also values education for all people and has outlawed the use of whips and cruelty to manage the serfs. Blessed with a thoughtful intelligence and the ability to articulate her views without rancour or aggression, she is more than a match for those who oppose her and her people.
But this is more than a story transplanted to the 14th century. Walters has clearly researched the period well and there are many historical elements which ring true. Like all the best novels of historical fiction genre, the reader gains a clear and comprehensive sense of the era with all its issues and tensions.
The harsh lives of the serfs are brilliantly painted but indirectly through comparisons between Lady Anne’s treatment of the serfs and that of other landowners. The Normans do not come out well in this book as they continually demonstrate their arrogance and cruelty. Nor does the Church as its clergy cling to the mistaken view that the plague is caused by the sinfulness of those who succumb to it. Even when an eleven-year-old is abandoned to her death on the wrong side of the city walls, the clergy cannot concede her lack of sinfulness.
The book is far from just a chronicle of arrogant Normans and clergy, the harshness and cruelty commonplace in 14th century England and the devastation caused by the Black Death, it also chronicles the triumph of intelligence and reason over prejudice and cruelty. There is an emphasis on the value of education and kindness in bringing about change in society. It is a joy to read about the five serfs who travel with Thaddeus on his exploratory trip around the shire and how they grow into courageous and fine young men – leaving behind the rather callow and rough around the edges teenagers they were only six months before.
To add a frisson of romance, there may be something developing between Lady Anne and Thaddeus. However, this romance – if indeed there is one – is subtly expressed so that it does not distract the reader from the principal plot.
While this book is the second of two, it is not critical to read the previous one first. However, reading the The Last Hours first will add considerably more enjoyment to the reading of the second. The reader can better share the journey of Lady Anne, Thaddeus and the people of Develish knowing from where they came.
For lovers of Minette Walters’ crime books, this book will not disappoint in the least. The themes are there as well as her consistently intelligent and articulate writing. It is an enjoyable book to read with the exactly the right mix of ‘biting dialogue’, characterisations and tension.
The Turn of Midnight
by Minette Walters
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 978 1 76029 587 5