The Poisoned Serpent
The Poisoned Serpent is the second book in a series of medieval mysteries written by Joan Wolf, who is well-known in romance circles both for her Regency Romances and for regency-set historicals. I enjoy a good mystery now and then, and I’ve read a couple of Margaret Fraser’s medieval mysteries, in which the sleuth is a nun. In this book, the sleuthing hero is a knight who recently discovered (in the first book) that he is heir to an earldom.
As the book opens, Hugh de Leon discovers that he is about to be betrothed to Lady Elizabeth de Beaute, whose father has just been made Earl of Lincoln. Hugh finds this news disastrous, because he is already in love with Cristen Haslin, the daughter of one of his uncle’s vassals. As he and Cristen are pondering what to do about their situation, they learn that Elizabeth’s father has been murdered, and one of Hugh’s old friends has been blamed for the foul deed. Hugh immediately leaves Elizabeth’s home and journeys to Lincoln, intending to find the real killer and clear his friend’s name. Cristen shares a sort of psychic connection with Hugh, and shortly after he arrives in Lincoln she can feel that he needs her there, so she tricks one of her father’s knights into accompanying her and sets off to help Hugh solve the mystery.
There are several key suspects. The Earl of Cambridge was de Beaute’s rival for the Lincoln earldom, and Hugh believes that one of his knights may have been the killer. There is also a churlish Saxon lord with a grudge against de Beaute (and pretty much all Normans). Hugh also wonders if Lincoln’s sheriff may be responsible.
When I first started reading this book, I wondered if I would ever be able to keep the names straight. There is a long list of characters right in the beginning, and they all sound more or less the same. During the first chapter they are all introduced quickly, and it took a while to figure out who was who. But once I got deeper into the book I was able to keep them all straight. It is important to note, however, that I haven’t read the first book, which gives a lot of background information.
As soon as I figured out who everyone was, it was easy to enjoy this book, which has an interesting setting and an engaging plot. There is just enough medieval atmosphere to make the book interesting; the reader isn’t overwhelmed with minute details. The story moves along at a nice pace, intensifying toward the end as mysteries tend to do. The climax of the book is quite dramatic, and I was surprised by the identity of the killer.
The characters are likable as well, but because this is a mystery it is more plot-driven than a romance would be. Still, I particularly enjoyed Hugh’s character and would be interested to read more books about him. At first Hugh seems reserved and a little catty, but as the book progresses his motivations become clear. His kindness toward some of the secondary characters and his determination to wed his true love endear him to the reader.
The Poisoned Serpent lacks the emotional intensity one finds in say, an Elizabeth George book. However, it is still quite a satisfying read. Medieval fans who are willing to try a non-romance would do well to look here.