Monday, December 05, 2011

Crime Fiction: A Play of Heresy
by Margaret Frazer

Nobody does the Middle Ages better than the pseudonymous Margaret Frazer. Her 15th-century mystery series featuring Dame Frevisse (which began with 1992’s The Novice’s Tale) is an enchanting modern re-creation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Her second, spin-off series, which focuses on Joliffe the Player, offers different challenges. The latest of those books, A Play of Heresy (Berkley), presents a compelling puzzle set against a fascinating background.

The Frevisse series was constrained by the fact that a nun is mostly stationary; she doesn’t get to travel much, and plots depend on people coming to her. (There are, in fact, a couple of Frevisse stories that have her, reluctantly, out of the convent and visiting somewhere else.) But Joliffe, as an actor, is required to be on the road, as was normal for companies of players in 1438. This gives him access to a lot of places and all kinds of interesting situations.

In A Play of Heresy, we find Joliffe at the festival of Corpus Christi Day, and practically everyone in the West Midlands town of Coventry is involved in presenting a passion play. Joliffe is not only part of one such production, but he is trying to figure out who among the players and supporters is more--or less--than he seems.

The plot of Heresy revolves around the death of a merchant who doubled in political intrigue. The subsequent, particularly cruel murder of the chief suspect confuses the issue a good deal. Joliffe’s company is unfortunately implicated in the crimes.

I admire Frazer for her ability to write about history without ever lecturing. In this book, for instance, we learn a little about the Lollards--at least enough to understand why the Catholic Church found them threatening and why Joliffe finds them a complication--but in an accessible sort of way. In addition to acting, Joliffe does a little discreet spying in this tale for a well-connected English bishop, and the first victim, although unknown to him, was part of the same secret group.

There are a number of plot threads here, all intriguing in their own right: the goings-on within Joliffe’s regular troupe; the creation of a remarkable dramatic production by an experienced director, whose mostly amateur cast is endowed with wildly divergent skills; the amorous pursuit of a young widow by two men; and Joliffe’s relationship with the secretive and obsessive Sebastian, who’s also part of the spy network.

One of Frazer’s talents is making even her minor characters distinct and well-rounded. There are no cardboard stereotypes here! These people live and breathe and stride right off the page, which makes them remarkably appealing despite the hundreds of years between their world and ours. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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