Roberta Gellis introduced her dynamic detective duo in her first medieval mystery, A Mortal Bane. And an unlikely pair it is. Magdalene La Batarde is mistress of The Old Priory Guesthouse, one of the most exclusive brothels in London. Sir Bellamy of Itchin is a knight in service to the Bishop of Winchester. In the first book, they
uncovered the murder of a papal messenger. In A Personal Devil they work together to discover who murdered the nasty wife of Mainard the Saddler. In both cases, the discovery of whodunit is enriched by the author’s brilliant recreation of 12th century London.
Magdalene becomes involved in the case - and draws Bell in - because the victim’s husband has taken one of her whores as his leman. Mainard, a kind and gentle man, has one flaw: his face is grossly deformed. His wife, Bertrild, the daughter of a knight, had been happy to marry the man and take advantage of his wealth, but she had unmanned him and made him miserable. His confidence had been restored by the kind affection
of Sabina, whose blindness had allowed her to “see” the real Mainard. Obviously, Bertrild had been furious when she discovered that Mainard had taken a mistress. Thus, the saddler is the immediate suspect when she is found dead in the yard of his workshop.
Magdalene and Bell combine to discover the true culprit. As they investigate Bertrild, they discover that there were many people who had reason to wish her dead. They uncover evidence that she was a blackmailer and slowly they determine who had both motive and opportunity to perform the deed.
Mystery readers will certainly enjoy the way Gellis describes the investigation. While Bell and Magdalene lack the scientific knowledge that characterizes modern detective work, their methods are not all that different: determining the time and place of the murder, looking for witnesses, investigating motives. Of course, what matters most is the
intelligence and perceptiveness of the detectives. Both Bell and Magdalene, and especially the latter, are very astute evaluators of human behavior.
The appeal of historical mysteries, in my opinion, resides in the ability of the author to recreate the past and to create a “police procedural” that fits the time. Gellis does this very, very well. She has an unrivaled mastery of the social and political realities of the
12th century and the ability to bring this past era to life.
The appeal of historical mysteries to this reader - and I assume many others - lies in the characters and their relationships. Here again Gellis is excellent. Magdalene and Bell are clearly attracted to each other, probably even falling in love. But there are serious barriers to their relationship. While Magdalene no longer takes “clients,” she is
still a whore. We begin to discover more about why this beautiful and intelligent woman has fallen so far. She has won her current position of independence and growing financial security at a heavy cost and she will not give them up. Bell has understandable difficulty in accepting Magdalene’s profession, but if he cannot, he cannot accept her.
Equally interesting is the relationship between Sabina and Mainard and the characters of the other women who live and work at the Old Priory Guesthouse. There is nothing prettified about their lives or the lives of those in much worse circumstances. This is the 12th century, warts and all.
Gellis is one of the grandes dames of historical romance. Like many others who have read and loved her romances for over two decades, I am saddened that changing tastes and editorial shortsightedness have driven her from the genre. I am, however, delighted that she has found another way to keep telling stories. As long as Roberta Gellis keeps telling stories, I’ll keep reading them.