Serpent in the Thorns
by Jeri Westerson
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Serpent in the Thorns is #2 in the "Medieval Noir" mystery series set in fourteenth-century London and featuring fictional former knight Crispin Guest. Seven years ago, Crispin was stripped of title, lands and wealth for plotting to depose Richard II and set the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, on the throne instead.
Crispin has adapted, becoming the "Tracker," a man who, for a fee, is able to "find out things." He lands in more trouble than usual when a simple-minded girl begs for his help: there's a dead French courier in the room she shares with her sister. In the courier's satchel is one of the most prized relics in Christendom. Who killed him? What was he doing in the tavern wenches' shabby room? Crispin's attempts to unravel the mystery lead back to the even more dangerous mystery of seven years ago: Who, really, was behind the traitorous scheme that destroyed his life?
The mood of a 1930s noir translates surprisingly well to the mean streets of fourteenth-century London. Hard-drinking Crispin is suspicious, cynical and hazardously undeferential to people with power, though soft-hearted with petty thieves formerly beneath his notice. Although Serpent in the Thorns contains no grisly torture scenes, the fear of torture drives the story. Crispin struggles to set his own memories aside as he pursues an investigation that could land him, once again, in prison under an accusation of treason. He also exploits the threat of torture with effective results when questioning reluctant sources.
Like Sam Spade, Crispin is larger than life in his devotion to rooting out and exposing the truth. Toward the end of Serpent in the Thorns, he may challenge some readers' suspension of disbelief with his assertion of individual personal integrity in the face of a social order which assumed the divine right and absolute power of kings, but many will find him an inspiring hero.
More about Serpent in the Thorns at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Interview with author Jeri Westerson
Other historical noir mysteries:
Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson (2008), #1 in the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series. More info
Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr (1994), a collection of three mysteries set in Germany during and immediately after the Nazi period. More info
Devil's Garden by Ace Atkins (2009), a mystery featuring noir mystery author Dashiell Hammett as the sleuth. More info
Nonfiction about John of Gaunt and King Richard II:
John of Gaunt: The Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth-Century Europe by Anthony Goodman (1992). More info
The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era by Norman F. Cantor (2004), about John of Gaunt and his world. More info
Richard II: Manhood, Youth and Politics, 1377-1399 by Christopher Fletcher (2008). More info
The Reign of Richard II, edited by Gwilym Dodd (2000). More info
"Noir Fiction," an essay by George Tuttle about the history of the genre
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