Great worldbuilding is the kind of thing that makes a reader hopeful. After all, if the world a story inhabits feels real and intriguing, the story itself just might have some of that magic, too. However, without a polished story, a fascinating world isn’t enough on its own and that ended up being the main problem with Tainted Innocence. The author’s portrait of early 16th century Cambridge was wonderful, but the mystery just didn’t work
Set in the fictional College of the Young Princes at Cambridge, the story focuses on a murder that has rocked the seemingly quiet college. Matthew Hobson, orphaned son of a local businessman and a rather undistinguished student at the college, gets murdered early in the story. His half-brother Luke and an illiterate laundress from the college, Bryony, find themselves drawn into the murder investigation early on. Luke and Matthew had a rocky relationship and fought over ownership of a piece of land left by their father, so Luke certainly has motive. As for Bryony, she is a traveler who settled in Cambridge not long before, and several of the clues uncovered at the college point straight to her.
The story jumps back and forth between Luke, Bryony, and various figures at the college. We see Bryony’s deep loneliness as the local folk of Cambridge mistrust her, Luke’s daily struggles at his business, the college choirmaster’s fretting over his charges’ singing, the sinister plotting of the manciple and other college adminstrators, and so on. For a time, the various plot threads converge, diverge and sometimes dance around one another. This seems like a setup for something promising when reading the early chapters, but as the subtle dance of plot threads continues, the middle of the book starts to sag.
In terms of strong points, the author does a fantastic job of bringing 16th century Cambridge to life. The tension between town and gown sometimes spills over into fights and brawls, and we get a sense of how characters on both sides of the divide lived their lives. Most of the townspeople are poor, and live by serving the college. While some resent the college’s domination of the town, they also depend upon it for jobs and survival. The book makes it clear that life in Cambridge could be quite rough, and even though the school seems to pay a pittance, Bryony’s circumstances in particular show that it meant the difference between life and starvation.
The college, on the other hand, seems almost like a cross between a monastery and a grand country manor. At this point in time, much of the education provided was overtly religious, and much is made of chapel and choir. Like priests, the scholars at the college were expected not to marry and have families, but to live devoted to their scholarship. However, the descriptions in the story give one the idea that the college did not lack for creature comforts, as is shown by the lavish meals and what sounds like an army of servants working to provide for the comforts of the faculty and students.
With such a vivid setting, I had high hopes for the story but it just didn’t hold my attention. First of all, the characterizations lacked a certain something. While one can easily understand Bryony’s wariness given her marginal status in Cambridge, she spends way too many chapters playing the part of pitiful doormat. I sympathized with her at times, but she also frustrated me in large part because she lacked not only a spine, but basic common sense on occasion. Yes, the world treated poor Bryony unjustly but she caused some of her own problems as well. And then there was Tressillian Jones, the choirmaster. I picked up on him being a timid, hesitant man, but beyond that, much of his character seemed vague. By the end of the book, I found myself wondering why this character had such a large role and why was it even important that he be so timid? The author spent a lot of time placing him throughout the pages of the story, but not enough on making him stand out.
And then there was the mystery itself. It’s a convoluted maze of clues, red herrings, and all manner of odd doings. At times, the seeming complexity of it did hold my interest and I wanted to know what would happen next. However, things meander quite a bit and the pacing feels uneven. For instance, one moment Luke or Bryony will be a target of suspicion, and then the next moment, they’re walking free and we don’t see what has happened to cause this change. This made the book feel rather jumpy, and the rough editing didn’t help. As I read, I noticed that I might be in the midst of a scene involving Luke and his shop, and then suddenly in the next paragraph, I’m transported to the college and find myself in the midst of the latest secret intrigue amongst the faculty. I read an ARC from Netgalley, and I can only hope that the final version fixed that problem.
The jumpy quality of the text caused issues for me, but that wasn’t the only problem. Parts of the story also struck me as unrealistic. The persons investigating the murder at the College of the Young Princes seemed a bit inconsistent. One moment, they would be determined to find the killer in their midst and after looking at clues, feel convinced they had a viable suspect. However, they didn’t seem to knock themselves out trying to bring their suspects to justice. And then there was the matter of Bryony, the illiterate laundress. Her inability to read puts her at a disadvantage in academia, but as it turns out, at least one character seems to prefer pictures to writing. How very convenient.
The setting of this book was wonderfully drawn, and the author definitely had some interesting ideas with regard to her plot. However, the awkward pacing and the frustrating slowness that marked the progress of the murder investigation within the book made it a somewhat less than average read. Given the good ideas in the story, I can see where, with some practice and polishing, this author could be a good mystery writer. For that reason, while I cannot recommend Tainted Innocence, I will be curious to see what Joss Alexander comes up with in the future.