Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review of 'Unhallowed Ground' by Melvin Starr

Unhallowed Ground: The Fourth Chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon 
★★★☆☆
  
"Thomas atte Bridge, a man no one likes, is found hanging from a tree near Cow-leys Corner. All assume he has taken his own life, but Master Hugh and Kate find evidence that this may not be so. Many of the town had been harmed by Thomas, and Hugh is not eager to send one of them to the gallows.
Then he discovers that the priest John Kellet, atte Bridge's partner in crime in A corpse at st. Andrew's chapel, was covertly in Bampton at the time atte Bridge died. Master Hugh is convinced that Kellet has murdered atte Bridge - one rogue slaughtering another.
He sets out for Exeter, where Kellet now works. But there he discovers that the priest is an emaciated skeleton of a man, who mourns the folly of his past life. Hugh must return to Bampton and discover which of his friends has murdered his enemy . . . "
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Opinion: By way of a brief introduction the series is set in the late 1300s (14th century) and the protagonist Hugh de Singleton is the younger son of a knight who trained as a surgeon (different from a physician) and was subsequently appointed Bailiff of the Oxfordshire Village of Bampton after treating the Local Lord. Bampton is a real village a short distance from Oxford, and most of Hugh’s sleuthing and medical work takes place in and around the region.

With this particular installment, the fourth in the series, I was generally satisfied. The crime itself is not described in graphic detail, nor does the author seem to delight in gory descriptions of brutal acts, and the aspects of social history are interesting. Some of the descriptions of medieval surgery and medical practice are also fascinating, as well as the everyday lives of ordinary folk. 
Yet the novel does seem to drag a little towards the middle. The main reason for this seems to have been that Hugh just did not have much to do, and so his daily life and routine just seems to have become part of the plot, and, whilst this work for a while, it cannot always hold one’s interest. Admittedly, it would not be much of a mystery novel if the case was solved easily or quickly, and the process of investigation is as important as the resolution, yet the story just seemed slow and plodding in parts.

Overall, ‘Unhallowed Ground’ was and enjoyable read, likely to satisfy lovers of historical fiction if their expectations are not too high. Those who expect the High Drama of political intrigue will be disappointed, but those who prefer ‘cosy’ rural settings may take to it more. As murder mystery it is good, though perhaps not the best, the most intriguing element may the protagonist belonging to a much misunderstood and underrated profession which the author has clearly taken trouble to acquaint himself with.

History: The historical elements seem to be well done, plausible and authentic- and appear to be well researched for the most part. The glossary is useful for the more unfamiliar terms. The one thing which does seem out of place is the accents of the characters- they seem a little- odd. I am not familiar the Oxfordshire accent, but I don’t think it sounds anything like one the lower class characters have in the novel, which seems like a bizarre mixture of West Country (Devon/Cornwall) and Northern.

Christianity/ Morality:
The novels in this series often include exploration of moral or religious subjects, which can help to add a somewhat deeper element to the story. In this case, Hugh has to confront his own prejudice when seeking out as supposed felon, and  his own beliefs are bought into question when it appears that the former murderer, blackmailer and thief has indeed repented and chosen to truly follow God.
Yet the conclusion of the moral dilemma which results solving of the murder is distinctly unsatisfactory, as well as morally questionable, which is the main reason why I gave this novel a lower rating than I perhaps would have done.

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