For the eighth time, murder complicates the Domesday mission of William the Conqueror’s emissary Ralph Delchard (The Hawks of Delamere, 2000, etc.). Charged to investigate irregular land claims in Exeter 20 years after the 11th-century Saxon dispossession, Ralph takes along fellow Norman ex-soldier Hervey de Marigny. A veteran of the siege of Exeter, de Marigny respects the local Saxons but fears that their vengeance is responsible for the vicious mutilation of Nicholas Picard, Norman usurper of a Devon manor. Picard, a notorious philanderer, should have been an important witness in the land hearings. Now he’s left behind nothing but a bloody corpse and an estate for three of his lady friends to claw over: Catherine, his estranged wife; Asa, the prostitute who loved him; and Loretta, a secret lover whose son lost the estate to him. Complicating the investigation is loutish Sheriff Baldwin, who delights in applying hot pokers to Saxon suspects, and licentious jester Berold, who keeps Ralph’s religious colleagues, pompous Canon Hubert and prudish Brother Simon, off-balance. When de Marigny is also found torn to death, it takes Ralph’s insider/outsider partner, the half-Saxon lawyer Gervase Bret, to cut through low humor and low assumptions about the status of women and Saxons to see who has been pulling the strings.
Sometimes grotesquerie (farting soldiers, squatting clerics, oleaginous stewards, etc.) can spark otherwise flat prose. Here, the byplay just adds to the clutter of stale characters and muddy motives. Jester Berold isn’t enough to entertain the readers Marston allows to get ahead of him.