Okay, I’m finally veering a bit from the existentialist/curmudgeon tone I set in my first several posts (for the time being).  With the new semester starting, and things thus a little more hectic, I decided to go for something short and sweet.  On my mother’s recommendation, I picked up a mystery novel by Margaret Frazer.

The Servant’s Tale, the second in Frazer’s Sister Frevisse Medieval Mystery series, tells a story of intrigue in the most unlikely of places: a rural Benedictine nunnery (St. Frideswide) in fifteenth century England.  The story centers on Meg, a poor commoner working as a scullery maid at the monastery in order to try to scrape up enough money to make her younger son Hewe a priest.  Early in the novel a traveling band of players arrives at St. Frideswide, bringing along Meg’s husband Barnaby, who had been terribly injured in a wagon accident.  Though at first he seems to be on the mend, Barnaby dies mysteriously in the night.  The nuns assume the death came about naturally as a result of an unseen wound, but it leaves poor Meg devastated.  Unfortunately for Meg, her husband’s death is just the first of a series of deaths, culminating in a surprising ending.

Sr. Frevisse stands in a long line of religious sleuths that includes G. K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown and Ralph McInerny’s Fr. Dowling.  What makes The Servant’s Tale (and, I assume, the rest of the books in the series) distinctive is Frazer’s descriptions of late medieval society.  Everyday, ordinary things that we in twenty-first century America take for granted – a warm place to sleep at night, the availability of various kinds of food, ease of travel – are shown to be rare commodities in medieval England.  To take but one example, before his death Barnaby gives his wife a special treat he had earned and brought back for her: an orange.  At first, Meg is unsure of what it is, and she shrieks in terror as Dame Frevisse attempts to show her how to take the skin off, thinking the nun will ruin it.  Frazer later describes the delight and wonderment of Meg and her son Hewe when they finally open the orange and partake of it at home, commenting on how different an orange is on the inside than an apple.  To us, this is common sense, but Frazer reminds us that it was not always so, and in this way reminds us of the wonder of ordinary things.

Frazer also has clearly done her homework and captures the feel of monastic life beautifully (or at least it’s the way I suspect monastic life to be).  The nuns are not all saints – they each have their foibles, pet peeves, and animosities.  Nevertheless, they regularly come together for prayer, invited with the standard Latin greetings, and they humbly obey the will of the prioress, Domina Edith.

One other aspect of the book that I enjoyed was its pace.  It is not until nearly halfway through the book that the first recognizable murder takes place.  Even then, the murders unfold slowly, and Frazer throws in just enough credible suspects and motives to keep the reader uncertain.  At the same time, as with any good mystery novel, once the crime is solved, all of the clues are seen to have been there all along.

There are some elements of the book that I cannot comment on for fear of giving away the ending, but the thing that struck me the most was Frazer’s portrayal of the medieval mind and of medieval society.  The people of the fifteenth century had very different priorities than we do, and yet in other ways were not that different from us.  This reminder, combined with the challenge of solving the mystery, makes The Servant’s Tale an engaging and worthwhile read.

Seven down, (at least) forty-five to go.