Half the population is dead of a mysterious disease. The people who are left do not know what caused the disease or what they can do to keep it from coming back. Because they are ignorant and terrified, they believe monsters, witchcraft, signs and portents are everywhere. The lord of Somershill Manor and his two eldest sons have died of the plague, and the youngest son — a naïve 18-year-old — is brought back from school to take over the manor. His first day back, he’s confronted with the body of a local girl, Alison Starvecrow, who has been gruesomely murdered, and he sets about trying to find her killer.
“Plague Land” is a murder mystery set not in some imagined apocalypse but in a real one. The Great Plague devastated much of Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. Oswald de Lacy, who suddenly finds himself the lord of the manor, was educated to be a monk.
He learned to read, write and think rationally, so he assumes that Alison’s murderer was human. The local priest, John of Cornwall, is a charismatic charlatan who insists the murderer was a dog-headed monster, and he sends the peasants running around the countryside looking for the elusive Cynocephalus. Oswald may have few useful skills for running an estate, but he does know that he needs the tenants of Somerhill Manor to be tending to the livestock and getting the crops if they don’t want to starve. He can’t get them to listen to him, let alone be any help in finding Alison’s murderer.
“Plague Land” is British author S.D. Sykes’ first novel, and she paints a vivid and gritty picture of medieval England.
A reader looking for a land of gallant knights and delicate damsels will be disappointed. Sykes gives a vivid description of her protagonist hiding from danger in a pit filled with dead bodies and does not stint in describing the stench of a privy. Oswald’s rational mind sets him apart from his superstitious contemporaries In that way, he is reminiscent of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael of “The Cadfael Chronicles” or maybe Owen Archer, the Welsh archer featured in 10 of Seattle author Candace Robb’s historical novels.
However, both Cadfael and Archer are experienced men and canny fighters. Oswald is neither of these. His impulsiveness and occasional lack of judgment provide plenty of comic moments in a story that might otherwise be unrelentingly grim.
Sykes stirs other memorable characters into the mix, including Oswald’s mentor, the occasionally drunk but always wise Benedictine brother Peter, who advises him, “be a better lord than your father. A man who would have ignored this crime. Just because the victim was a poor village girl.”
Oswald’s strong-willed mother keeps getting him to stop what he’s doing so he can meet the latest marriage prospect, usually a dull girl from a good family.
His sister Clemence, who could usually be found “tormenting some piece of linen with her needle,” keeps whining that she is old and not yet married and that Oswald should do something about that.
As his family remains totally self-absorbed, things on the estate get worse. Alison’s sister is murdered and the tenants are lured away by a neighboring lord offering better wages to harvest his crops.
When Oswald goes to negotiate with his neighbor, the man tries to murder Oswald and then is horrifically murdered himself.
Sykes provides an unexpected comic moment when the tenants return to Somershill after the murder, and Oswald asks them why they were at the neighboring castle. “They looked from one to the other and then to the ground. William the ploughman spoke first. ‘We were on a pilgrimage, sire.’”
Sykes keeps the plot twisting, the suspense tight and the humor popping through in her vividly realized picture of medieval English life in all its squalor, ignorance and fear.
Always in the background, too, is the reminder that the behavior of frightened people is still as irrational in the 21st century as it was in the 14th.
People still grasp at superstition and look for monsters when times are terrifying, even if the explanations are rational and the solutions lie within human capability.
Oswald does solve the murder, and the solution is satisfying, although another twist at the end hints that this is only the first book in a series. Sure enough, on Sykes’ web site, she says she has just completed a second book featuring her young medieval sleuth.
If the first book is any indication, Oswald has an interesting and entertaining career ahead of him.