Shadow of the Alchemist by Jeri Westerson is the sixth mystery of medieval noir featuring disgraced knight Crispin Guest (available October 15, 2013).
It is a snowy November morning in 1387 when French alchemist Nicholas Flamel seeks out disgraced knight Crispin Guest for help in locating his missing wife and the young apprentice she’s apparently run off with.
Crispin is massively hung-over or, as his apprentice Jack Tucker would say, “out of sorts” and by no means in the mood to ply his trade as a tracker in a case that seems to be a routine domestic matter. Such cases never end well, in Crispin’s experience, and cause nothing but heartache to everyone concerned.
But of course, this is a story tagged “medieval noir,” and nothing noir is ever straightforward. Not even when it’s historically accurate. Westerson does a good job of bringing new readers up to speed on her characters and their world, with references to Crispin’s other cases, former patrons, and current allies, but does not let “backstory” bog down her current tale. That’s good, because the political shenanigans going on at the time were complicated and could easily have overshadowed Crispin’s case, despite the intriguing intersection of codes and ciphers and arcane knowledge that lie beneath the murder and mayhem.
With historical fiction, half the fun for the reader is the immersion in another place and another time, but the writer has to straddle a fine line when ladling out the history. There’s too little and then there is a little more than a little which is, in the Shakespearean phrase, “much too much.” Westerson gets the balance just right. We know when this story takes place (late 14th century), and—from conversations Crispin has with the young son of one of his former patrons—that political intrigue is afoot. For those who know their history (or their Shakespeare for that matter), that means that Richard II is king and the country is enmeshed in the Hundred Year’s War and a group of nobles have plans to stage a coup.
That’s all we really need to know about what’s going on in the larger sense of the story, but historical mysteries always have that extra layer of storytelling at work on top of whatever the crime-solving plot is. Even when a story is just inserted into a period without the characters actually interacting with the powers that be, a certain amount of “filling in the blanks” is necessary. The challenge is providing readers an experience that feels authentic without getting too “precious” in recreating the past, particularly when it comes to period dialogue. Westerson’s characters talk like regular people with the occasional period oath (Jack’s favorite is “God blind me”) thrown in for flavor.
But historical novelists also face another challenge. Unless the period of their book is very recent, readers always know more than the characters.
An example in this book would be when M. Flamel’s hapless apprentice, Thomas Cornhill, is found dead in a particularly contorted posture…
The alchemist sat on the floor on his knees, weeping. Above him, swinging gently back and forth, hung a young man. Upside down he hung, his left leg bent and tied behind his right to form a triangle. He’d been hung by his left foot, which was wrapped with a heavy rope leading up to the rafter beam.
Flamel’s deaf-mute servant girl Avelyn finds the body’s posture familiar, as will any reader who has ever seen a Tarot deck, but Crispin does not immediately grasp the significance of the murder’s staging. Nor, when the ransom demand for Mme. Flamel’s life comes in, does he immediately understand that the “stone” the kidnappers want is not a gem, but the fabled “Philosopher’s Stone,” the holy grail of alchemists which is said to turn base metal into gold and create the elixir of life. Even when the alchemist hands over payment in the form of small gold trinkets—a nail, a spoon, a key—Crispin’s a bit clueless.
But he doesn’t stay that way long. And the shock of his discoveries feels very modern indeed.
Crispin is very much a man of his times, but he is also a man that modern readers can relate to. Plain-spoken and plain-dealing, Crispin has experienced the turn of fortune’s wheel first-hand and so he’s not really surprised by the way the entitled meddle in the affairs of lesser men, a message that will particularly resonate with readers in these uncertain political times.
It would be easy for Crispin to turn away from his case, and much, much easier for him to leave the matter alone, especially after he finds out that someone close to him seems to be involved and warns him off:
“I do not know your meaning, Master Guest.” The formality drew thick around him, like a cloak of ermine. It reminded Crispin that [he] was no longer the boy he had known, with flushed cheeks and ready hugs for his house hold companion. He was a man of duty now, a man with great responsibilities and the power to back it up.
“And know this,” he went on in a cool, emotionless tone. “Remember to whom you are speaking.” He stepped closer, his face so close to Crispin’s that Crispin could count the freckles on his nose.
He spoke with a steady whisper. “Do not get in my way or you shall regret it.” He dealt one last look of finality, turned on his heel, and stalked away.
Most men would have taken the hint, but not Crispin, whose quest to find “an innocent lady” turns into a job with greater stakes than he ever could have imagined.
Fans of Westerson’s complicated crime-solver will not be disappointed by this latest entry in the Crispin Guest series and its blend of personal and political plotlines.
It feels satisfyingly historical but there’s not a “mayhap” to be found anywhere in the book.
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Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles in an apartment where her TBR pile has its own bookcase. She writes dark fiction but has a soft spot for cozy mysteries, heroic fantasy, and horror novels where only bad people get killed. She is the author of the upcoming novel Misbegotten.