The Sins of the Father

Catherine Hanley

Disclaimer: The Sins of the Father is published by Quaestor2000 who have also published my novel Paths of Exile, although I don't think that has influenced my opinion.

Quaestor2000, 2009, ISBN 978-1-906836-11-5. 193 pages.

The Sins of the Father is set in May 1217 at Conisbrough Castle, Yorkshire, against the backdrop of the political turmoil at the end of King John's reign. William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and his sister Isabelle are important secondary characters, and William Marshal (hero of The Greatest Knight) is a dominant off-stage presence. All the main characters are fictional.

Edwin Weaver, son of the bailiff at Conisbrough, is just reaching adulthood. Unpopular King John has recently died, and a faction of the English barons has proclaimed John's nine-year-old son Henry as King, with the formidable William Marshal as Regent. This presents something of a political dilemma to the nobles who had previously rebelled against John and invited Prince Louis of France to be king. Do they support Prince Louis and risk William Marshal's wrath, or do they change sides, join William Marshal's campaign against Louis and risk being beaten by Louis who controls much of eastern England? William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, has decided to switch sides and is mustering troops at his castle of Conisbrough to join the siege of Lincoln, which he hopes will convince William Marshal of his loyalty. Edwin, standing in as bailiff for his dying father, is helping to organise the logistics and never expects these great affairs of state to impinge on his own unremarkable life. But when the Earl of Sheffield, a supporter of the new young king, is murdered at Conisbrough, William de Warenne fears that he will be implicated in the crime and accused of treason unless he can find the murderer before they set out to join the Marshal. The task falls to the acting bailiff of Conisbrough, Edwin Weaver. Can the inexperienced Edwin solve the mystery and bring the murderer to justice in time?

This is a medieval murder mystery in the classic mould. A crime is committed, in a confined place with a constrained group of people, and the fictional detective (and, by extension, the reader) has to spot the clues and deduce the solution. As Edwin Weaver is clever but young and inexperienced, he has to call on help from Warenne's squires, the military veteran in charge of the castle, the estate steward and even his dying father. This makes the investigation something of a team effort. It is also a coming-of-age story for Edwin, as he has to take decisions and responsibility and learns a great many things he would probably rather not have known about the nobility and about human nature in general.

The plot is well constructed with no obvious holes or loose ends. A neat trail of red herrings diverts the reader's attention away from the real culprit almost until the final denouement, and when revealed the murderer and the motivation are credible for the time and for the characters involved. Some of the clues are handed to Edwin on a plate, either by his helpers or by sheer luck, but given his inexperience it would be difficult for him to solve the mystery any other way. It will be interesting to see if he has to do more of the detecting as the series develops.

As well as the mystery, The Sins of the Father paints a detailed portrait of life in early thirteenth-century England. As the bailiff's son and stand-in, Edwin belongs to the common people but has to deal with the nobility, so he is an ideal character to show the reader all classes of society and the sharp social divisions between them. I say "class", but "caste" might be more appropriate given the rigidity of the social divisions. Everyone's place in society is determined by their father's social position, with little if any scope for change and very little interaction between the classes. Edwin is horrified when he has to give orders to a noble squire who has been assigned to help him with the investigation, and a noble page is stunned to realise that a poor boy of about his own age could actually go short of food. Details such as the serving of dinner in the great hall, the upheaval caused by having to accommodate unexpected visitors of high rank, and the duties of a lord's squire are all lovingly described.

Most of the characters are decent, likeable people, albeit with their fair share of human flaws. Only the fictional Earl of Sheffield, his brother and one of their squires are thoroughly unpleasant, three weasels who deserve each other. Edwin in particular is thoughtful and reflective, with potential for further development in the future. There is clearly scope for a sequel (or several sequels), even though the present mystery is solved at the end of the book. A useful historical note discusses some of the history behind the novel, and sets out the liberties taken and the characters invented.

Enjoyable murder mystery in an authentic setting.