Widowed Elizabethan herbalist Susanna, Lady Appleton, and her Kent country neighbor, Nick Baldwin, slip off for a tryst in Maidstone during the 1567 summer assizes—but they can’t escape Nick’s suspicious mother, Winifred, or Susanna’s past. Constance Crane awaits trial in Maidstone for bewitching men to death, a charge the logical Susanna can’t tolerate even when the woman it’s brought against is her late husband’s mistress (Face Down Beneath the Eleanor Cross, 2000, etc.). While it’s easy enough to learn which poison actually felled landowner Clement Edgecumbe and the mysterious Peter Marsh, Susanna, along with Nick and her faithful housekeeper Jennet Jaffrey, struggles to uncover the clever villainy hiding behind the locals’ superstition and appetite for scandal. Their efforts are complicated when hack writer Chediok Norden, sensationalizer of trials in quarto-sized pamphlets and would-be wooer of Edgecumbe’s daughter Damascin, teams up with Nick’s mother, who seeks to separate her son from that witchy widow Susanna. Can Susanna—an herbalist, after all—fight this battle and escape a charge of witchcraft herself?
The earlier 16th-century confiscation and redistribution of Catholic Church properties left a legacy of rancorous religious politics and cultural shockwaves. Exploiting the chaos for its criminal possibilities, Emerson poses enduringly hard questions about women and worth in this exemplary historical mystery.