Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Unquiet Bones - Melvin R Starr

I was struck from the very beginning of this novel by the style of the prose. The story is framed as an account in the first person by Hugh de Singleton, a young surgeon investigating the murder of a girl found in the cesspit of his patron’s castle. The language is uncomplicated with no aspirations to poetic beauty, but instead has a wonderful clarity to it. The narrator’s candid honesty and independent mind made this a joy to read, and gave me the feeling that if Hugh de Singleton were a real person, he’d be someone I’d very much like to know.

Another advantage Starr’s novel has over most historical stories is that the narrator is, himself, imbued with medieval values. Too often, authors simply place a character with modern attitudes in an historical setting, with no real consideration for how they could possibly have developed in a way so different to everyone else at the time. Of course, for the reader to relate to the protagonist we must have points in common – and in The Unquiet Bones Hugh is very much a progressive, but in a way that could have been possible at the time. While he favours contemporaneous modern medical theories, and believes in bathing even in winter, he still takes the social status quo for granted and respects its boundaries.

As usual when historians turn to writing fiction, this novel is full of great little details that add to the atmosphere and to the genuine feel of the time. Everything from the seating and food at dinner to some rather graphic surgical descriptions and a thorough understanding of the different clothing styles allowed to various social classes is included. These facts aren’t thrust in the face of the reader, however, but taken for granted by the narrator as common knowledge.

The central mystery itself is well thought out and takes several twists and turns before reaching its conclusion, and we get to know several ancillary characters as the story progresses, which makes a nice change from most murder mysteries, in which the characters encountered are often just there as parts of the puzzle.

This one was a very pleasant surprise, and I’m happy to discover that there are 6 more left in the series.

Next up: The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

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