Bone of Contention by Roberta Gellis
(Forge, $25.95, PG) ISBN 0-675-30019-2
Readers who have been following Roberta Gellis’ new series of medieval mysteries will want to get their hands on Bone of Contention. Fans of well plotted historical mysteries will want check out a book that combines a puzzling plot with a marvelous recreation of 12th century England during the troubled reign of King Stephen. Romance fans who grew up on Gellis’ compelling tales and who can let go of some of the conventions of that genre should enjoy the developing relationship between the heroine and hero of the story. In short, Bone of Contention has something for everyone.

Magdalene la Batarde is a most unusual heroine. She is whoremistress of the Old Priory Guesthouse, one of the most exclusive brothels in London. (Actually, it’s in Southwark; brothels weren’t allowed in the city.) The hero is Sir Bellingham of Itchin, a knight in the service of the Bishop of Winchester. He met Magdalene on the bishop’s business, since Winchester is her landlord (which should tell us that things were different in 12th century England.)

The two have become lovers, but Magdalene refuses to promise Bell that she will abandon her profession. Although she no longer takes clients, she will never again place herself under the protection of one man. Her unhappy past and her conviction that Bell will never forget that she is a whore have led her to this conclusion.

Another reason is her deep-seated loyalty to and affection for William of Ypres, her long-time patron. Lord William is King Stephen’s chief military leader. Many years before he saved Magdalene from a dreadful fate and helped her to her present prosperity. Thus, when William contacts her and asks her to come to Oxford where the king’s court is meeting, she agrees without hesitation. Clearly William needs her as he has in the past: as a cover for secret meetings where political matters are discussed.

Bell is not happy that Magdalene so readily falls in with Lord William’s plans, but as he too has been ordered to Oxford on the bishop’s business, the two travel there together. Bell lodges in a local abbey; Magdalene finds a place to stay in a whorehouse whose mistress she knew many years earlier.

As is usually the case in a mystery, murder is at the center of the story. The victim is Aimery St. Cyr, a man-at-arms in the service of Lord Waleran de Meulan, King Stephen’s closest confident. The accused is Sir Niall Arvagh, one of Lord William’s captains. Sir Niall is courting one Loveday of Otmoor, a ward of the king. Aimery had appeared at Otmoor, claiming that he had been given the young woman’s hand. When the loutish Aimery is found stabbed, Niall is a most likely suspect.

Given the tense political situation, Lord William asks Magdalene to try to discover who is the true culprit; he is fearful that the accusation against his man will harm him politically. Bell, as he has in the past, assists Magdalene in her investigation. Before the murderer is found, two others will die.

What makes Bone of Contention so compelling is Gellis’ skill in combining the murders, the tense political situation, and the personal relationships into a compelling story. Her characters, both primary and secondary, are real medieval people, with the attitudes and ideas of their time. Her setting is as realistic as the sensibilities of the modern reader will permit. Her interweaving of the political situation into the plot is seamless. Her story provides all the puzzles and potential suspects that a mystery requires.

Of course, for this reader, what matters most is the characters and the relationships. Magdalene is a marvelous and unusual heroine. She is a woman with secrets, not least of which is how a woman of apparent gentle birth and admirable intelligence ended up as a whore and a whoremistress. Gellis gradually lets us see a bit more of her past as the story progresses but there are still other questions to be answered.

Gellis provides not one but two romantic relationships in Bone of Contention. There is the romance between Niall and his Loveday, or perhaps I should say, Loveday and her Niall, because she is clearly the one in charge. Loveday’s determination to be mistress of her own fate does not seem at all anachronistic but rather the result of her intelligence and ability. Gellis has always been able to create realistically strong and independent medieval women.

The relationship between Magdalene and Bell is, by definition, more problematic. The two started out as friends, have become lovers, but how can there be any happy ending, given the differences in their status and position? Gellis certainly knows how to keep her readers on tenterhooks for the next installment of the series.

Bone of Contention is a first rate historical mystery. While I regret that Gellis is no longer writing romance, I am grateful that she has found a genre where she can combine her unmatched ability to recreate the past with a cast of fascinating characters and a good story into a most entertaining read. I can hardly wait for the next “Magdalene la Batarde” mystery.

--Jean Mason

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