After a fight with his adoptive father (actually his biological father, but he forgot to mention that bit) Justin de Quincey storms out of Chester and decides to seek his fortune in London. En route, he saves a groom from likely death at the hands of the bandits who stabbed his master. With his last words, Gervase FitzRandolph entrusts to Justin a letter for the queen concerning the fate of her missing son, King Richard. After reading the letter, Eleanor is left in a quandary. For FitzRandolph to have been the victim of random violence would be one thing, assassination another. And words which Justin overheard on the Alresford Road suggest a targeted killing by men in search of the letter. The moves she should make to keep her other son, John, from gaining power will depend on whether or not this was the case, and she employs Justin to find out.
Although he is young, and clueless as to the ways of investigating murder, Justin is in need of money and agrees. He travels to Winchester and discovers plenty of people with motive - starting with the dead man’s family. Unable to draw any satisfactory conclusions, he turns his attention to the killers, and with the help of under-sheriff Luke de Marston takes the search to London. Ensconced in down-at-heel Gracechurch Street, the two men match wits with a ruthless villain who believes in knifing first and asking questions later, while Justin tries to untangle the web of Court allegiances to work out who is the spy that John has set to watch him. And somewhere out there is the person who ordered the murder.
I really wanted to like this book. And after a slow start, I eventually did - mostly. It worked best when the investigation was in full flight and there were plenty of other characters around; they helped to detract from the fact that the main character was less interesting than the secondary ones. I particularly liked Luke, and wily London tavern manager Nell, who helped snare the bad guys. The historical setting was well-described, and it was easy to forget that a politically-sensitive crime was being investigated by someone only a couple of years older than Nancy Drew. (Well, it was the Middle Ages.) His attempts to rid himself of the aptly-named Shadow, a puppy who decides to adopt him, provide some humorous touches. And when the action gets going, the pages turn very easily. But at the end things took a bit of a nose-dive, when the solution to the mystery arrived from out of left field. Or so it seemed at first; on reflection I could see how it had been set up. But it still was not at all what I had expected, and not really in a good way. Denouements should make you think ‘Aha!’, not ‘Huh?’. And perhaps I’m flattering my abilities a bit too much here, but I couldn’t escape the thought that had a certain gap in my general knowledge not existed - or if I had gone to the reference books in the first place instead of leaving it to the end, the ending might actually have been obvious. If I’m going to read any more in this series, I’m going to want to see some favourite characters reappearing; it worked much better as a historical novel than as a mystery.
Rating: C+ (unless you decide to view it simply as a historical, in which case B-)