The Harlot's Tale by Samuel Thomas is the second in the Midwife's Tale mystery series about seventeenth-century English midwife Lady Bridget Hodgson (available January 7, 2014).
As a midwife, Lady Bridget Hodgson is all too familiar with death. But, thankfully, it isn’t a constant companion. That is until a murderer begins stalking the whores of York. Summoned by her brother-in-law Edward, the chief constable, to examine the bodies, Bridget finds herself drawn into a sordid web of prostitution and religious fanaticism.
…It had served as a bedchamber, but now seemed like nothing so much as a slaughterhouse. Blood covered the uneven wood floor, a thin coating in some places, but pooled so deeply in others that it would take hours to dry. As I slowly raised my eyes to the bed, horror welled up and a scream clawed to escape my throat…as I tried to comprehend the terrible scene before me.
It is the summer of 1645 and a terrible heat wave holds York in its grip. Animals are dying of thirst, crops are withering in the sun, and a fire-and-brimstone one-eyed preacher named Hezekiah Ward has come to town. In his impassioned public sermons, Ward lays the fault of the weather upon the sinful ways of the people, singling out York’s prostitutes as particular offenders inciting God’s wrath.
[Oh, sure, always blame the pros...]
When Ward’s preaching coincides with murder, and slips of paper containing verses from the Bible are found in the victims’ hands, Lady Bridget suspects that someone amongst the holy man’s followers favors a more proactive approach to curing sinners of their transgressions.
Aided by her maidservant Martha and club-footed nephew Will, the resourceful midwife sets to work uncovering a tangle of hypocrisy, lust, rage, and money. But beyond the difficulty of finding the killer will be convincing the representatives of the law—all religious, godly men—that prostitutes deserve justice.
“This Israelite killed two people because they were guilty of whoredom?” Martha asked.
“He stabbed them through the belly,” I said.
“Just as Jennet and Mr. Jones were stabbed.”
I nodded. “And then God lifted the plague.”
“The murders were made to look like a story from the Bible?” Martha asked, still unable to believe what we’d found. “He slaughtered Jennet and that poor man as a part of a play?”
In his latest mystery, Thomas paints evocative brutality that calls to mind the infamous murders of Jack the Ripper. Here, too, the victims are ladies of the night, forced into dreadful, hard lives out of necessity, only to be ruthlessly tortured and killed by a perverse killer seemingly compelled by demons.
This Puritanical York is a world long gone but brought so vividly to life you can almost feel the heat. No unsavory detail is spared, as Lady Bridget investigates while also performing her usual duties as a midwife. This is no glossy, romanticized past, but one that’s harsh and very real, where stillborn babies must be cut from their mother’s womb, animals die in the streets, and rage can lead to violent and sudden death.
And while religion is an ever-present force and source of tension, and Lady Bridget a godly woman, there is still a satisfying amount of humanism and sympathy for the plights of the victims—while she cannot approve of the whores’ lifestyles, Lady Bridget understands that for many it is the only way to provide food and shelter. She sees the prostitutes as people rather than monsters, which leads to plenty of conflict as she tries to bring the killer to the law.
Thomas has created an interesting, colorful cast of characters. Lady Bridget’s maidservant Martha has a ready tongue and a past as a pick-pocket and cutpurse. Hot-blooded Will has a clubfoot and enough daddy issues to weight down a packhorse. There’s a powerful and educated bawd that dares to go head-to-head with our heroine, forcing her to question her own preconceived notions; a gaoler who also happens to be a little person; and mysterious three-fingered soldiers who are very good at lurking menacingly in doorways.
A fast-paced and enjoyably quick read, The Harlot’s Tale is solid entertainment for anyone interested in history, independent and intelligent heroines, and well-handled revelations. There may not be a lot of truly original ground tread here, but the tropes are deftly done and it all makes for a compelling story.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.