An imposing medieval mystery about a fearful religious community in the grips of secrecy.
In her fourth novel, Harvey (Dear Thief, 2014, etc.) has meticulously fashioned a historical mystery set in Oakham, a small, damp village in southwestern England, isolated by a river and buffeted by chilly winds. Its economy is weak, its villagers “scrags and outcasts.” It’s the year 1491. Wealthy, beneficent landowner Thomas Newman has talked about building a bridge. On Shrove Saturday eve he drowns in the river; the body is missing. Accident? Murder? Suicide? The dean of the local church, a man who had “a nose for the nasty,” has instructed John Reve, a burdened young priest and our narrator, to solve the mystery quickly and punish the guilty. Is Reve reliable? Did he kill Newman? Reve laments that in “desperate times people do desperate things: they steal, they lie, they cheat, they despair, they forsake Mass.” But this is no British cozy. Harvey has subtly crafted a complex narrative by adding another twist—the story goes backward. Reve’s narration takes place over the “four days of Shrovetide before Lent,” beginning on Tuesday, Feb. 17, and ending on Saturday the 14th, the night Newman died. Reve, as jury, will collect the evidence and, as judge, identify the killer. His court is his “little dark box,” the “crude and childish” confessional. The villagers come to confess their sins, some even pleading, “I killed Newman.” Reve listens, dissuades, and blesses—“Benedicite, Dominus, Confiteor”—with a “hefty pardon,” performing his “endless, thankless job, this one of serving God.” Harvey provides a wide array of intriguing, mostly pitiful suspects, each bearing some guilt, who live, Reve says, “in wariness at the whims and punishments of God.” The story is told in pensive, faux medieval prose, with chapter titles that suggestively repeat back and forth as the overall narrative inexorably, circuitously unwinds from present to past.
A dazzling, challenging read but one worth taking on.