Sharon Kay Penman, The Queen's Man (Henry Holt and Company, 1996)
Sharon Kay Penman, Cruel as the Grave (Henry Holt and Company, 1998)
Sharon Kay Penman, Dragon's Lair (Putnam, 2003)
Since Ellis Peters started it all with her Brother Cadfael series, the medieval mystery genre has exploded in popularity: Candace Robb's Owen Archer series; Margaret Frazer's Sister Frevisse mysteries; Edward Marston's Norman Domesday tales. Noted for her historical novels, such as the marvelous The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Kay Penman entered the fray in 1996 with The Queen's Man, a murder mystery centered around Justin de Quincy.
The unacknowledged bastard son of a bishop, Justin stumbles across a dying man with an important message for the queen none other than Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of the reigning King Richard and the scheming Prince John and is drawn into the intrigue of Eleanor's court at Winchester. Becoming the queen's man, Justin is charged with solving the murder, which, with the help of a motley crew of sheriffs, innkeepers, and lovely double agents, he does.
In Cruel as the Grave, Penman continues Justin's adventures with his attempt to solve the murder of a poor peddler's daughter and to simultaneously continue, as the queen's agent, to try to thwart Prince John's treasonous plotting, all while romancing the aforementioned lovely double agent.
In the newest novel, Dragon's Lair, Penman has de Quincy in Wales, again dealing with a situation of treason whilst trying to ferret out the location of a stolen treasure which Eleanor had intended to ransom the captive King Richard.
If these synopses seem a bit compressed, well, that's because they are. There's nothing more annoying in my book than spoilers when it comes to a murder mystery! Believe me, this is enough to make your average medieval mystery fan want to read these books: Queen Eleanor, court intrigue, historical detail, a dashing and tortured hero, romantic encounters.
In a nutshell, this is the problem; I've just described all three books, without spoilers, and yet I've told you just about all there is to tell you about the series. While Penman's historical novels are detailed to the nth degree, this series seems to be more of a repository for leftover ideas from her main work than anything else. Her romantic and florid writing style lends itself to the epic; these short books seem too short for the subject matter. Machinations which played out over many years are mentioned, but all subtlety is lost. The mysteries themselves are standard whodunnits, which frankly could have been set in any era and but for a few small details been just as acceptable.
In the first two books, there are virtually no rounded and believable characters; there are bumbling lawmen, dastardly villains, fiesty barmaids Heaven help us, Justin even has a noble steed and a loyal hound dog. Not only that, but the backstory requires a larger than usual suspension of disbelief, as Justin is taken on as the Queen's special agent with virtually nothing to recommend him other than one upstanding act how does she know he's not a spy?
Penman throws around cottes and tankards and pallets to assure us that this is indeed the 12th century, but she can't resist (or possibly did not realize that she was) throwing in modern language and modern concepts. Justin has "issues" his emotional distress over his father's refusal to acknowledge him seems perfectly normal in the modern context, but in Justin's era such situations were utterly commonplace, and in fact Justin is far better off than many an illegitimate child of the day; his petulance seems jarringly out of place.
The Queen's Man and Cruel as the Grave could as easily have been published by Harlequin or Silhouette as any potboiler on the rack at your local supermarket. Dragon's Lair, though, was a pleasant surprise, expecting as I was another throwaway airplane read. Was it the five year interval between the second and third books that made the difference? The writing in this third installment is vastly improved the mystery more interesting, the plot more intriguing, the characters taking on lives of their own. I actually cared what happened to Justin! I seethed at the villain's cruelty! I found myself looking forward to the possibility of a fourth book, an anticipation which neither the first nor the second book inspired.
Read The Queen's Man and Cruel as the Grave to familiarize yourself with the setting and the basic characterization. If they seem hackneyed and overly commercially motivated, Dragon's Lair will redeem the series; it is far and away the best of Penman's de Quincy stories, and makes it well worth plodding through the first two. This is a series that began with nowhere to go but up, but it's getting there...
Sharon Kay Penman has a Web site here.