When it comes to history books, I read both fact and fiction. I’m a massive fan of Modern History; anything from the Tudors to the Teddy Boys. But when a book of short Medieval Mystery stories landed in my letter box from the Hive, my comfort zone was well and truly removed! Thanks Girls!
Death Before Compline is compiled of several short stories written by Sharan Newman. The majority of the stories revolve around Catherine Levendeur, the protagonist of ten of Newman’s Medieval Mystery novels with the remaining two being about Solomon, a Jewish Trader and her father’s friend. The short stories fit in between the events that occur in the series of novels. I was a little concerned about reading a book of short stories that contained characters from a series that I had not read but Newman writes a synopsis of each of the books in her Mystery series. This proved very useful, particularly when I couldn’t remember the relationship between two characters or wanted to fill in the gaps of what had happened in the central character Catherine’s life.
A Medieval family
Newman binds history and storytelling very effectively, bringing the 12th Century to life by entwining the customs and superstitions that were part of everyday life into the Mystery stories. Visits to Anchoresses who give prayers and counsel in bricked up cells, the importance of the convent in the lives of all classes as well as the fear of demons and evil spirits. The importance of family in both its conventional form and that which the nuns build within the convent is also a recurring theme. Catherine leaves her home to join the convent, later leaving to create a new family with her husband Edgar.
Relationships with characters are hard to establish as after you meet a character the story finishes and you then meet them further along their timeline. This means you do not witness the same character growth as you would if you reading Newman’s whole series of mystery novels. That said the author knows her characters well and has a through hold on who they are. I found Catherine, an extremely likeable character and her frustration is palpable when she is sent to the convent and must follow the monotonous daily routine. No matter how curious she was, her path was not her own and her family delegated what should happen to her.
Note to the editor
The most frustrating feature of Death before Compline are the mistakes that slipped through the editing process. The use of ‘man’ instead of ‘mad’ interrupts the flow of reading. Having said that, Death before Compline is a great book not only for readers of the Catherine Levendeur Mysteries, but for readers like myself who need their first steps into Medieval History. It provides a brilliant start and I would be very keen to read more of Sharan Newman’s work in the future, I think this would provide a great springboard to both her works of fiction and non-fiction.