Book Review: The Tainted Coin

The last book available at present in the Hugh de Singleton series, The Tainted Coin, ups the ante from previous books in terms of plot and pace. A man is found brutally beaten and dying on the steps of St Andrew’s Chapel. His last words, uttered to Hugh, revolve around a coin, which is later found in his mouth. A Roman coin of some value, it prompts Hugh to search for its origins and to see if he can discover who killed this itinerant hawker.

The Tainted Coin (Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon Chronicles #5)

Others, however, are determined to prevent Hugh and so once again, the surgeon/bailiff finds himself in danger. Assisted by the burly groom, Arthur, Hugh uncovers a kidnapped woman, a wi

ly and unscrupulous knight and the involvement of his old enemy, Sir Simon Trillowe. But when the moral Hugh performs a risky rescue and takes into custody (for his own safety)one of the knight’s cronies, he finds himself at terrible odds with his master, Lord Talbot.

Threatening to quit if Lord Talbot forces him to hand over the man he’s rescued, Hugh finds himself in a moral quandary and under threat of losing the livelihood and place he’s grown to love. But as the danger grows, Hugh is forced to confront new and old enemies and even his employer and the outcome is as unpredictable as his baby daughter, little Bessie.

Once more, setting and period are beautifully captured and the characters are brought to life with an economy of prose and purpose. In some ways, the story is fairly predictable, but I didn’t find this a flaw. Rather, I enjoyed learning how events unfolded and the motives of those involved. If anything, being a couple of steps ahead of Hugh made you champion him and his investigation more.

This is another delightful installment in a series of which I have grown so fond. It can either be read as a stand alone or as the latest book, either way, there are rewards aplenty for newcomers to Hugh’s remarkable and dangerous life and those who have followed his rise and minor falls. For lovers of medieval whodunits, history and just damn fine reads.

I know there’s a new book in the wings, soon to be published and I cannot wait.

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Book Review: Unhallowed Ground by Melvin R Starr

Once I started reading this series featuring Hugh de Singleton by Melvin R Starr, I couldn’t stop. Searching for historical fiction that really captured a specific era (I was looking for the late 1300s, early 1400s) but was tight, well written and engaging proved harder than I initially thought – in that, I had already read so many good novels, it was hard to find new materialUnhallowed Ground (Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon Chronicles #4). That was, until I stumbled upon Starr’s series.

The fourth book in the Hugh de Singleton series, the surgeon who becomes a bailiff to Lord Gilbert Talbot (he of the arching brow), Unhallowed Ground is probably grimmer and darker than the other books in one way and yet, in another, also has a delightful and quite charming parallel narrative as Hugh is no longer a bachelor and early in the book he receives some wonderful news that will change his and Kate’s lives.

The tale commences with the death of a character we’ve come to know and loathe from an earlier book, the violent and manipulative Thomas Atte Bridge. Discovered hanging from a tree at the crossroads, it’s first believed that the man committed suicide, only, Hugh and Thomas’ poor wife, don’t believe that to be the case.

But when Hugh’s investigation uncovers a ream of suspects, all of whom not only had good reason to do away with Atte Bridge, but are decent upstanding citizens as well, Hugh finds himself facing a serious moral dilemma. When his investigation uncovers a criminal prepared to harm more than a villain, but Hugh and his wife, the bailiff’s anger is roused and he stops at nothing to find out who’s the culprit and why they’re prepared to go to such lengths to stop him discovering their identity. Only this time, the answers are not what Hugh expects…

Against the backdrop of the investigation, life at the manor and within the surrounding village is gently drawn. The reader follows Hugh on his investigations and intellectual peregrinations as he tries to fathom who the most likely culprit might be. In this book, we are also given a peek into married life and the role of a new wife and doting husband – and it’s utterly charming but realistically drawn as well. Likewise, the travels that Hugh undertakes as he seeks the killer, the insights into professional roles and respect for skills, medical, surgical, carpentry, horsemanship etc. are also lightly but accurately drawn.

These books are like a time capsule into a world and time past, but as I say repeatedly in my reviews, without sacrificing story. The pace can be slow, but the writing is always elegant and the characters beautifully drawn. Another delightful read.

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Book Review: A Trail of Ink by Melvin R Starr

The third book in the Hugh de Singleton series by Melvin R Starr is, thus far, my favourite. Commencing from where Book Two, A Corpse at St Andrew’s Chapel leaves off, it focuses on Hugh’s hunt for his former master, John Wyclif of Oxford’s missing books.

Thrown into life in medieval Oxford, a university town where the schism between “townies” and “gownies” is very real, Hugh must cope with the prejudices of those accorded the privileges that come with titles, even if it means remaining silent while one of these titled men steps out with the young woman to whom Hugh is fast losing his heart, the intelligent and sparkling Kate CA Trail of Ink (Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon Chronicles #3)axton.

Filled to the brim with characters of the villainous and noble kind (not of blood, but personality), trips to academic halls, taverns, castles and medieval roadways, murders, medicines and mayhem, the novel is also peppered with the hopeless attempts at romance and the flirting of Hugh. These clumsy efforts further endear him to the reader, but not to his rival for Kate’s affections, Sir Simon.

Soon, it’s not the missing books that Hugh has to worry about so much as himself.

Once again, Starr throws the reader into the violent, heady and slower pace of medieval life, describing clothes, meals, rites and faith with a deft but subtle touch that never detracts from the pace or story. Whether Hugh is being a surgeon, bailiff, detective or lover, he’s at all times believable and complete lovable.

A terrific addition to the series.

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Book Review: A Corpse at St Andrew’s Chapel by Melvin R Starr


A Corpse at St Andrews Chapel (Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon Chronicles #2)

The second book in Starr’s series about Hugh de Singleton, surgeon and bailiff for Lord Gilbert Talbot, centres on solving the murder of the beadle of Bampton, Alan. Found outside St Andrew’s Chapel, Alan has had his throat ripped out and mysterious marks on his body. The coroner decides it was a wolf that killed him. Hugh, of course, isn’t convinced and so sets out to discover just who or what took the beadle’s life. Only, his investigations put his own at risk and, when he’s attacked late one night, he understands that the killer may be closer than he thinks…

In Hugh de Singleton, Starr has created the most unlikely of heroes. By his own admission, he’s not very handsome, athletic or even brave. Hugh nonetheless manages to be incredibly endearing, loyal and even, occasionally, funny (eg. He longs (in each book) to be able to arch his brow like his lord and fails). More than capable of negotiating with belligerent villagers or extracting what he wants from a lord who’s obviously glad to have his capable services, Hugh is also highly intelligent and patient. So is the story. Bringing the period (1365) to life with fabulous detail – but details that don’t detract from the story – and ambience, the daily life of a surgeon and bailiff and all the characters that make up local towns and villages and the laws, hierarchy and faith that bind them together are brought to life.

What are of particular interest with these books as well are the medical procedures, which are unpacked for the reader, sometimes in wince-worthy ways. Likewise, the food, the rituals and the expectations placed upon an individual due to their sex or roles are beautifully explored.

This is an easy and engaging read that should keep lovers of good historical fiction and mysteries more than satisfied.

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Book Review: The Unquiet Bones by Melvin R Starr


The Unquiet Bones (Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon Chronicles #1)

What a wonderful surprise this tightly written, historically very accurate and beautifully paced book turned out to be. This novel, set in the 1300s, follows the career of Hugh of Singleton, the youngest son of a knight who, while at university, discovers his calling is surgery. Setting up practice in Oxford, he is soon lured to the small town of Bamford and into the service of local lord, who asks him to track down the killer of a young woman whose body is found in the castle privy.

Unwilling at first to become involved, but understanding he has little choice, Hugh not only learns more about medicine than he ever bargained, but how to track clues and the uncanny ways in which killer’s minds operate – all of which put him and others in danger. Added to this is the presence of his lord’s lovely but unattainable sister, the fair Joan, a class above him, or is she?

Starr writes sparsely but with wit and an accuracy that pays homage to the period but without ever sacrificing plot or story.

The tale reminded me of C.J Sanson’s Shardlake novels, but without the richness of the prose or world-building, but still with a wonderful tone. If you’re looking to dip your toes into the medieval period, enjoy a quick murder-mystery (albeit when life was slower and, seemingly, fuller and crueller), then this is perfect. I’m already halfway through his next Hugh the surgeon book and loving it as well.

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