A Mortal Bane by Roberta Gellis
(Forge, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-87000-0
Readers who devoured the Brother Cadfael mysteries (and I am one of them), who appreciated the recreation of a realistic medieval world, who enjoyed the inclusion of political intrigue in the tale, who liked watching a keen mind slowly uncover the identity of the murderer, should immediately rush out an get their hands on a copy of Roberta Gellis’ new medieval mystery, A Mortal Bane. They will have found a worthy successor to Ellis Peters.

Like Peters, Gellis brings an impressive knowledge of medieval England to her story. Like Peters, she has created a most unusual and compelling “detective.” Like Peters, Gellis presents the reader with a most intriguing mystery with just enough red herrings and viable clues to keep us turning the pages.

Chapter 1 introduces the main character simply and directly, “Magdalene le Batarde, whoremistress.” At once, the reader understands that Gellis is inviting us to enter a world which is very different from our own.

The Prologue sets the scene. A blind whore makes her way from the Old Priory Guesthouse where she lives and works through a gate into the grounds of the church of St. Mary Overy. It is night, after Compline. The monks have finished their devotions and the church will be empty. The whore, excommunicated because of her profession, must make her devotions in secret. As she approaches the steps, she hears a voice asking, “Who’s there?” and a strange sound. As she makes her way up the steps, she encounters something unexpected, a body. Exploring it with her hands, she finds first a throat slit from side to side and then, when she touches the face, flees in panic back to the guesthouse. She knows the man and knows that a whore will quickly be accused of the dire deed.

The scene shifts to a few hours earlier when an unexpected visitor arrives at the Guesthouse. He had been told that it was an inn owned by the Bishop of Winchester, the brother of King Stephen. Indeed, the Old Guesthouse is church property, but Magdalene has leased it from the bishop to conduct her business. She lives there with three women who ply the trade she has happily retired from. Sabina is blind; Letice is dumb; and Ella is, well, lacking in wits. Each has been rescued from a far worse situation; each is grateful for the refuge Magdalene provides in the exclusive brothel; each is talented in her profession.

The guest is somewhat taken aback by the high cost of a night’s lodging and entertainment -- a whole five pennies. But he decides to stay and enjoy himself. He leaves later for a secret meeting, a meeting that leads to his violent death.

When Sabina returns stumbling and sobbing after her horrid discovery, Magdalene knows immediately that if the dead man can be traced to their house, they are doomed. So she cleverly erases all traces of his visit, including disposing of the pouch he hid in Sabina’s room, a pouch that proves he is a papal messenger carrying extremely important documents. When the church’s sacristan accuses the whores of the murder anyway, she joins with the Bishop of Winchester’s knight, Sir Bellamy of Itchen, to uncover the real culprit.

This does not begin to capture the richness of this story. As the quest for the villain continues, Gellis manages to illuminate the personalities and politics of early 12th century England. We meet churchmen and politicians and merchants and knights. We learn about the court intrigues that have led to a breach between king and bishop. We meet holy and not so holy clerics, men of goodwill and men whose prejudices and fears have little to do with the gospel.

Magdalene is a marvelous creation. Gellis provides hints of the past that led her to her current situation. She has clearly fallen far. But she accepts her lot in life with a realism and courage that can only be admired.

And Sir Bellamy certainly begins to admire her. Bell is Magdalene’s equal in intelligence. Like her, he wants the true culprit found and their joint efforts create a growing respect and perhaps something else as well.

If the main characters come to life, so too do all the secondary characters. Whether these are historical figures like the Bishop of Winchester or William of Ypres, or fictional characters like Magdalene’s employees, her clients, the monks, the bishop’s staff, the suspects, all are fully developed people who enrich the fabric of the story.

Medieval London is likewise a “character” in A Mortal Bane. Its sights and sounds and smells, its terrors and delights, are all drawn with a sure hand. No one does a better job of recreating this world than Gellis.

Roberta Gellis is one of my favorite authors. Her historical romances are models of the intelligent and effective use of the past to create compelling and entertaining stories. This, her first medieval mystery, shows that she has not lost her touch. The ending of A Mortal Bane suggests that Magdalene and Bell will be back. I certainly hope so. I can see them as the Eve and Roark of the 12th century. May A Mortal Bane be the first of many.

--Jean Mason

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