Second installment in Holsinger’s series starring medieval detective John Gower.
While investigating a grisly mass murder—the bodies of 16 men were dumped in a London sewer—Gower makes the startling discovery that all were, apparently, killed by a recent innovation: a rudimentary rifle known as a “handgonne.” As in the previous volume (A Burnable Book, 2014), the narration occasionally shifts away from Gower to the voices of others whose connections to the central mystery emerge in increments. Stephen Marsh, a blacksmith whose error in tipping a cauldron of molten metal caused his master’s death, has been sentenced to 10 years’ indenture to the master’s widow, Hawisia. Marsh’s skills have attracted the attention of Snell, chief armorer to King Richard. Soon Marsh is crafting handgonnes at night, without Hawisia’s knowledge, or so he thinks. Robert and Margery, disguised as pilgrims, are on the road north, having broken out of jail. (She’s wanted for killing her brutal husband and he for poaching the king’s game.) They may have escaped just in time to avoid the fate of the sewer-bound 16. After happening on a forest splintered by shot, Gower and his best friend, Chaucer, are briefly detained by the Duke of Gloucester. Another massacre occurs: a surprise attack on a busy Calais market with handgonnes—a more unwieldy variant that requires two men to shoot. The killers wear armbands of cloth bearing Gloucester’s heraldry of intertwined swans; similar badges were found on 10 of the London victims. To employ parlance never stooped to by Holsinger, is someone trying to frame Gloucester? One of the chief delights here is the language, which convincingly mimics Chaucerian speech. Exhaustive detail on London infrastructure and the newly forged handgun industry can sometimes stultify compared to the vivid scenes of daily life circa 1386: the endless bribery required to get anything done, the struggles of women high and low, even Gower’s losing battle with what appears to be encroaching macular degeneration.
A cautionary tale that argues powerfully against handgonnes and their modern descendants.