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No Dark Place by Joan Wolf
(Harper Collins, $19.95, PG) ISBN 0-06-019238-0
****
Let me begin by warning all and sundry that No Dark Place is not a romance novel, although it contains a sweetly sensuous love story. Rather it is, in the words of the cover blurb, "A Medieval Mystery." Joan Wolf once again demonstrates her versatility as she ventures into still another genre. No Dark Place has all the hallmarks of a Joan Wolf novel: strong writing, excellent characterizations, good dialogue, an interesting plot, and a well-researched setting. This author knows how to tell a story.

The book begins in 12th century England. The Battle of the Standards (one of the opening rounds of the struggle between Stephen and Matilda) has just been fought and one of its victims is Ralf Corbaille, Sheriff of Lincoln. Ralf's chief mourner is his foster son Hugh. This twenty-year-old had been knighted only the day before but had already demonstrated a talent for leadership.

Nigel Haslin, one of the knights who had fought in the battle stares in astonishment as the grieving young man passes him. He is stunned by Hugh's resemblance to his late liege's missing son. When he discovers the circumstances that brought Hugh into Ralf Corbaille's home the sheriff found the young boy starving on the streets of Lincoln, discovered that he spoke Norman French, and took him home where his childless wife immediately took the lost child into her loving heart he is more than ever convinced of Hugh's true identity.

Fourteen years earlier, Roger de Leon, Earl of Wiltshire had been murdered in his own chapel. The knight who was believed to have killed the earl had ridden out of the castle with his young son. The knight's body had been found later; he had apparently been the victim of outlaws. But the boy's body had never been found. Roger's brother, Guy, had assumed the title and estates.

Nigel is convinced that Hugh Corbaille is really Hugh de Leon, the rightful Earl of Wiltshire. Seven months later, he goes to Hugh's small estate to place his conclusions before the grieving young man. Hugh has no memory of the years before Ralf Corbaille, the best of fathers, saved his life. He discounts Nigel's claim. But partly out of curiosity and mostly out of a need to escape surroundings that contain too many painful memories, Hugh agrees to accompany Nigel to his own home and to visit Chippenham Castle to discover whether it holds any hidden memories from the past.

When Hugh arrives at Nigel's home, he is stricken with a blinding migraine headache. Nigel's young daughter, Cristen, ministers to him. She is lovely and charming and caring, and Hugh feels an immediate connection with her.

The mystery in No Dark Place centers on who killed Lord Roger. There have always been those who believed that Guy de Leon had something to do with the murder of his brother and the disappearance of his nephew. Once Hugh becomes convinced that he is in fact Hugh de Leon, he feels he must discover the truth. And then there is the question of who is responsible for two attempts on Hugh's own life. Will Guy go to any length to hold on to the title and position he may have murdered to gain?

The mystery is played out against the background of an England which is descending into a murderous civil war. We meet Stephen, a man who wanted the crown but may be too nice and honorable to keep it. We meet Robert of Leicester, who has espoused his half-sister's cause. The question of who is the true Earl of Wiltshire becomes a political as well as a personal issue.

Wolf has done her usual excellent job of creating characters who come to life for the reader. Hugh is a complex young man, who both needs to and fears discovering the truth of what happened in that chapel all those years ago. Only Cristen seems to sense the pain about the hole in his past. That they should be drawn together seems inevitable.

A particularly strong secondary character is Hugh's mother, Isabel. She has chosen to spend the past fourteen years in a convent, praying for the safety of the son she so tragically lost. Yet Hugh is strangely loath to meet her once again.

The mystery of what happened in the Chippenham chapel permeates the story, but what makes this such a good book are the characters. I didn't want to say good-bye to them when the book ended and it turns out that I may not have to. A blurb on the back cover suggests that No Dark Place may be the first in a series featuring Hugh and Cristen.

I have followed Joan Wolf from Regency romances to historical novels to historical romances. I will follow her to medieval mysteries as well. She has rarely disappointed me and she did not let me down with No Dark Place.

--Jean Mason


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