Sharon Kay Penman is an author revered by many historical fiction fans for her huge, all-encompassing novels that make the past truly come to life. She has written several books, most recently a trilogy (soon to be a quartet) on Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their "devil's brood" of scheming children.
On a smaller scale, Penman also wrote four medieval mysteries, set during the period in which King Richard was held captive by his enemies in Europe, his mother Eleanor ruled England as regent and his younger brother John plotted to seize the throne. I just finished the first of these books, The Queen's Man.
I have mixed feelings about Penman's mystery debut. Her characterizations were strong, and her grasp of time and place second to none. She obviously knows this period inside and out. I particularly enjoyed how she wrote the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine. However, I found the mystery a bit thin and the ending a letdown.
The Queen's Man introduces Justin de Quincy, bastard son of a bishop, who as the story begins has no income or prospects. By chance, he witnesses a murder on the road to London and discovers a secret letter for Eleanor hidden in the victim's tunic. The letter informs the queen of what has befallen Richard on his return from the Crusades. Eleanor, fearing the French king's involvement in intrigue against her son, charges Justin with discovering the truth behind the killing.
The book's first half was a quick, easy read, introducing several possible suspects and motives for the murder. Unfortunately, Penman abandoned those plot threads in the second half to place her focus solely on a hunt in London for a hired killer. I prefer my mystery novels to have more twists and turns that take me on a wild ride, before pulling everything together and springing surprises on me at the end. The ending of The Queen's Man, however, left me saying, "Is that it?" The few surprises were rather tepid and unexciting.
Justin was an appealing protagonist, a sort of "fish out of water" living by his wits and sometimes requiring help from those with more knowledge of the criminal underworld. The supporting characters were strong and kept me turning the pages even while the main plot dragged.
The book did spark my interest in learning more about the captivity of Richard the Lionheart, as well as the antagonism between Richard and John. I have heard subsequent novels are better, so I'll continue with the series for now.
My grade: C+