In 12th-century London, the Bishop of Winchester, head of St. Mary Overy Church, has made a most unusual pact with Magdalene la Batarde, a widow who rents from him the church's Old Priory Guesthouse next door. There she runs a quiet, elegant whorehouse whose staff includes blind Sabina, slightly simple Ella, mute Letice, and deaf cook Dulcie. Magdalene no longer plies her trade, but a steady, wealthy clientele keeps the house prosperous. Onto this peaceful scene comes a handsome stranger—by misdirection, it appears—who turns out to be papal messenger Baldassare de Firenze. In the very early morning he's found, stabbed to death, on the porch of the church next door, and the fanatically pure Sacristan Paulinus accuses the women of murder. The Bishop of Winchester appoints Sir Bellamy of Itchen (more often called Bell), his right-hand man, to investigate the killing and to find the pouch the dead man was carrying. Matters grow more complex with the discovery of' thefts from the church's collection of gold and silver objects. The denouement, when it finally arrives, makes a heroine of Magdalene but carries little conviction. Burdened with endless details of church rituals and politics and a set of rather dull minor characters, this first mystery by fantasist Gellis is heavy-going despite its intriguing heroine.
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