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 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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