The Demon's Parchment: A Medieval Noir
by Jeri Westerson
Cover Artist: Photo-Illustration: Steve Gardner, PixelWorks Studios
Review by Mel Jacob
Minotaur Books Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312609269
Date: 27 September 2011 List Price $14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
An interesting and complex mystery faces Crispin Guest, who was once tried for treason and stripped of his title and lands. Only his patron, John of Gaunt saved him from hanging. Now he is known as the Tracker because he seeks to locate lost things and to solve murders in medieval London. He discovers the corpse of a young boy brutally murdered and defiled. Then, he learns at least three other such ritualistic murders have occurred. He convinces the newly elected sheriffs to engage him to solve the murders.
Meanwhile, a Jewish physician to the Queen asks him to find missing Hebrew parchments stolen from his rooms. Needing money, Crispin agrees. The young son of the man attacks Crispin for insulting his father. That annoys Crispin, but he settles for an apology. Apparently, the scrolls could be used to create a golem, but Crispin dismisses that as wishful thinking. The son claims to have seen and heard nothing related the theft.
A servant who had information about the theft agrees to meet Crispin. However, when Crispin arrives at the appointed place and time, he finds the servant dead of strangulation, but finds a thread he hopes will identify the killer.
Crispin, now a lowly commoner, runs afoul of a lord, a cousin of a former friend. A foreign astrologer accompanies the irate lord. The lord threatens Crispin and forces him to grovel in the mud, but the friend saves him. The friend, once a friendly rival, now owns Crispin's former manor, has married Crispin's lover, and now appears prosperous.
Eventually, Crispin unmasks the villains, but has no evidence after they kill his only witness. Disgraced and defeated at every turn, he yields to despair. Jack wants to help and arranges, without Crispin's knowledge, to masquerade as a potential murder victim placing himself in danger. Meanwhile, rumors of a golem persist.
The relationships between Crispin, his servant Jack, a reformed thief, and his assorted friends are warm and keep Crispin on track. Westerson provides texture to the period and the way people lived. Events in the book are fictitious, but Westerson includes an afterword that explains later historical characters used for models. However, one false note came from the behavior of the physician's son. While explainable, some aspects of the character failed to ring true.
Westerson specializes in medieval noir. Noir appears in many genres and has grown in popularity. A number of writers specialize in historical mysteries focusing on specific periods and often use clerics or officers of the law such as Ellis Peters, Peter Tremayne, and P.C. Doherty. Margaret Frazer used an itinerant actor. A few have used religious relics or paranormal events. The Crispin novels combine mysterious religious relics with murders. The next Crispin Guest novel, Troubled Bones, is scheduled for October 2011.