Sunday, September 6, 2015

Medieval Mystery Is Amazing

Review: The Fifth Knight by E.M. Powell


I remember the chest-tight thrill I experienced while reading Umberto Eco's monastery mystery The Name of the Rose, and the hope of triumph, but fear of failure in Antonio Garrido's birth-of forensics novel The Corpse Reader. I kept flashing on one or the other as I devoured E.M. Powell's story of the 12th-century murder of Thomas Beckett.

Like Rose, this novel is a mystery wound around the intersection of the Church with medieval politics. Unlike Eco's ponderous, slow-paced tale, though, this is a gallop through the chilly winter streets of Canterbury and the countryside between the cathedral town and the port of Southampton. 

In pace and suspense, it is much more similar to Garrido's novel of the Chinese gravedigger-scholar C.I. Song. Powell's presentation of real life for peasants and the poor in a medieval culture provides further reminders.

The story opens with the confession of Canterbury anchorite Sister Theodosia to the grim monk, Brother Edward, who is also assistant to Archbishop Thomas Beckett. The nun has a terrible temper, and fights with it daily, using constant prayer, and denying herself food and sleep to meet her own expectations of becoming meek and humble.

Theodosia's attempted piety will be put to naught by the arrival of five knights who have come to murder the Archbishop. We know the story to this point; we've seen the 1964 movie with Burton and O'Toole. In Powell's telling, the story diverges; these knights are here for Sister Theodosia and her mother. Beckett's murder is a sideline.

Theodosia must escape the murderous group or she will be tortured to discover the whereabouts of her mother. And aid will come from an unlikely source: one of the five knights who arrived to murder Beckett.

The writing has authentic flavor; characters develop along realistic lines for their time and culture. The story is gripping, with a well-written mystery or three underlying the action. In fact, although I read it straight through without a pause, I could hardly bear to finish the novel. Fortunately, there is a sequel, The Blood of the Fifth Knight, so I could learn what happened to Theodosia and her knight after the end of the first book.

One of the few books that has made me wish to be able to award a sixth star, this. You don't have to know the history; even if you've never heard of Beckett before this, you won't be able to put it down. It's just that good