Book Review: The Harlot’s Tale
by Sam Thomas
Minotaur Books, 2014
Sam Thomas’ 2013 novel The Midwife’s Tale, the most promising murder mystery debut of the year, featured imperious, strong-willed 17th century York midwife Bridget Hodgson and her slightly enigmatic, extremely capable maidservant Martha Hawkins combining wits to track down a vicious killer, and all the book’s chances turned out well. The setting, the city of York in an England racked by Civil War, was fascinating and seldom-dramatized; the premise, a respectable widow and esteemed professional whose calling gives her some crucial connections to both the innocent and the guilty, was unusual and convincingly researched; and even the character of Bridget herself, an opinionated and somewhat haughty figure along the lines of Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar from the Mistress of the Arts of Death novels, ended up being entirely winning if not entirely likeable. More than any other mystery I read in 2013, it left me eager for a sequel.
That sequel is now here, and The Harlot’s Tale is an even stronger outing than its predecessor. The story opens months after the conclusion of The Midwife’s Tale; warfare still rages elsewhere in England, but York itself is firmly under Puritan control, and in the summer of 1645 the town’s new godly rulers have something else to worry about besides the King’s forces: an unprecedented heatwave, as Bridget reflects:
For the last month, York had suffered from a heat more merciless than anyone could remember. The oldest among us said that a blast such as this had come in the time of Queen Elizabeth, but even they agreed that it had not lasted so long … I knew not what the Lord meant by sending this terrible summer season, but I felt quite sure that every minister in the city that day would ask the question, and that every minister would have an answer.
Under the twin pressures of rampant heat and corkscrewing religious oppression, tempers flare and murderous impulses start bubbling to the surface. A prostitute and one of her clients are found brutally murdered, and the crime draws suspects like flies to rotting meat. It’s quickly followed by other murders, prompting Bridget and Martha (aided by Bridget’s bumbling, likable nephew Will, who has a clubfoot, an affable bravery, and who will be played by the cutest young UK actor available if the BBC ever gets around to filming these books) to the conclusion that someone even more crazed than the Puritans is loose in York.
The previous book’s cast of characters returns here and is further fleshed out: fussy, callous Edward, Bridget’s brother-in-law, Joseph, his feckless but much-favored eldest son, and Hannah, Bridget’s lifelong trusted housemaid (and Samuel, a wise-cracking dwarf bailiff cut along the same lines as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, who turns out to be just as good at scene-stealing as Tyrion is). But once again the most interesting dynamic is the one between Bridget and Martha, who’ve become friends in an unusual but entirely natural way that Bridget cannot help but ponder:
What struck me most when I considered the past year was that despite the difference in our ranks, which could hardly have been greater, we’d become fast friends. I would have thought such a transformation impossible, but the dangers we’d faced together as we hunted for a vicious murderer and the hours we’d spent together talking about childbirth had acted as a philosopher’s stone, turning a maidservant and her mistress into comrades.
These particular comrades have their hands full in this new novel: Thomas has crafted a story that’s more violent and more pleasingly convoluted than the last one, with not one but two surprise side-swipes right at the climax. If these books are coming at the rate of one a year, 2014 is going to feel long indeed.