The Abbot's Agreement
By Mel Starr
The Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon, #7
"My life would have been more tranquil in the days after Martinmas had I not seen the crows. Whatever it was that the crows had found lay in the dappled shadow of the bare limbs of the oak, so I was nearly upon the thing before I recognized what the crows were feasting upon. The corpse wore black."
Master Hugh is making his way towards Oxford when he discovers the young Benedictine - a fresh body, barefoot - not half a mile from the nearby abbey. The abbey's novice master confirms the boy's identity: John, one of three novices. But he had gone missing four days previously, and his corpse is fresh. There has been plague in the area, but this was not the cause of death: the lad has been stabbed in the back. To Hugh's sinking heart, the abbot has a commission for him ...
What an interesting and unusual story! I have long been a fan of British mysteries and am delighted to discover the medieval mysteries of Mel Starr. Seventh book in the Hugh de Singleton series, The Abbot's Agreement is centered around Eynsham Abbey in the fall of 1368. It's a world of castles, knights, monks, heresy, creative doctoring, and my favorite type of detection methods - questioning and observation. This is not an action-packed, fast-paced novel, but rather a steadily moving drama set during the 14th century, and all these elements are fleshed out by a narrative that contains some profound insight. Strong secondary characters - Abbot Thurstan, Brother Gerleys, and Arthur - added much richness. The Abbot's Agreement fascinated me and completely held my attention.
Church of St Beornwald
Master Hugh, surgeon and bailiff to Lord Gilbert Talbot, is a husband and father, with another child on the way, and we don't actually see Lord Talbot in this volume. The Abbot's Agreement stands alone, although I think reading the previous books would provide a deeper understanding of characterization and setting. These opening lines create a great sense of atmosphere . . .
"My life would have been more tranquil in the days after Martinmas had I not seen the birds. . . . It is said that curiosity killed the cat. It can prove hazardous for meddlesome bailiffs as well."
While I enjoyed the mystery element, this book's strength was the picture beautifully conveyed of medieval life in England. Not only does Mel have a wealth of knowledge and obvious love for those times, but he is able to communicate it in a way that draws readers in. With a lack of modern technology, medical practice and criminal detection were greatly challenged, yet triumphs occurred in ways that would surprise us today.
There's another strength as well, and that is the spiritual insight that flowed throughout and gives cause for reflection. For example, in contrast to today - when Bibles are easily obtained, yet often gather dust - Master Hugh greatly desired his own copy of the Scriptures, and that's the meaning behind the title. In return for investigating the murder of a young novice, Abbot Thurstan promised to have scribes prepare a Bible for him, in the time between Martinmas (November 11) to St. John's Day (June 24).
But I think my favorite part was when Master Hugh recited Scripture passages with a dying Abbot Thurstan - Scriptures about being forgiven and "cleansed from all unrighteousness" . . . presented "holy, and blameless, and irreproachable in His sight." These words that bring us so much comfort and assurance were heretical thinking in those days, as evidenced in the words of Brother Gerleys: "Who will give us lands and shillings to pray for their souls if there is no purgatory from which they seek release?"
I enjoyed The Abbot's Agreement very much and hope to read more of this series soon. Recommended, especially to those who enjoy historical mysteries.
Mel Starr was born and grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He graduated from Spring Arbor High School in 1960, and Greenville College (Illinois) in 1964. He received an MA in history from Western Michigan University in 1970. He taught history in Michigan public schools for thirty-nine years, thirty-five of those in Portage, MI, where he retired in 2003 as chairman of the social studies department of Portage Northern High School.
Mel married Susan Brock in 1965, and they have two daughters; Amy (Kevin) Kwilinski, of Naperville, IL, and Jennifer (Jeremy) Reivitt, of Portage, MI. Mel and Susan have seven grandchildren.
Meet Mel online at melstarr.net
Thank you to Kregel for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.