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THE HARLOT'S TALE
by Sam Thomas
Minotaur Books, January 2014
320 pages
$24.99
ISBN: 1250010780


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Lady Bridget Hodgson and her deputy Martha Hawkins pick up again a year after their last sleuthing adventure in the first of Sam Thomas's Midwife Mysteries. It's 1645 in York, England and the country is reeling from the civil war that ousted the monarchy and placed the Puritans in power. Some people are embracing the new "godly" style of religion (which is mandated), some are as tepid in this new faith as they were in the old, and some are keeping a low profile in order to keep out of trouble. Traditional clergy can do nothing about the stripping and smashing of their parish churches. New ministers arrive preaching fire and brimstone. To top it all off, this particular summer is the hottest and driest anyone can remember and animals are dying of thirst and crops are shriveling. That promises a very hard winter without food stores put away.

After the setting of the scene and of the continuing relationships, Lady Bridget is called to a crime scene by the father of her deceased husband. The fact that Edward Hodgson sends his older son Joseph to bring her is a compliment to the work she did with him the year before, figuring out what had happened and who was responsible. It is also, in this case, an acknowledgment that Lady Bridget as a midwife has an entry into several classes of women who would not respond to him quickly or voluntarily with information he needs.

Edward's younger son is Will, someone Lady Bridget is fond of but who is sinking into drunkenness because of his father's rejection of him: Will was born with a clubfoot and his father does not believe he will ever be able to function well as an adult.

At the crime scene, Lady Bridget and Martha are shown the bodies of a whore and her client, he bludgeoned to death and she stabbed repeatedly in her "privities" and thighs until a major artery was cut and she bled to death. Pressed into her hands are a pair of Bible verses condemning whoredom and those who frequent these women.

At the same time, Lady Bridget and Martha are made aware of the arrival of the fieriest minister of them all, Hezekiah Ward, a one-eyed leader of a band of fanatics demanding that all those who sin through whoredom be converted or punished so that York will be a clean city pleasing to God only then will He relent and lift the oppressive heat under which everyone suffers. York does not repent sufficiently and the murders of the whores multiply rapidly.

From there on, the novel and I part company.

Those who loved the first of the series probably see Lady Bridget as courageous to the point of daring, perceptive, quick to come to a conclusion, and quick to act, and they may well find this novel a diverting continuation of the ongoing story.

I find her not brave but foolhardy. She and Martha walk through the streets of this rather large city in the middle of the night to help women in "travail" if they are called. That is praiseworthy but very dangerous, even if Lady Bridget is a gentlewoman (who appears to believe that her status will protect her against any threat). It is also foolish because at one point in the novel the author points out that she could call local lawmen for an escort each time.

She is perceptive to be true, but she makes connections based on speculation and considers that "proof" of guilt. These conclusions often seem unjustified and later evidence often forces her to abandon them.

She is very quick to act on her conclusions, accosting people with accusations and demanding of lawmen that these persons be arrested and tried. The problem is that in the space of 320 pages Lady Bridget suspects six different persons of involvement in the murders and accuses at least four of them. At the opening of Chapter Twenty both Martha and Will bring just this problem to Lady Bridget's attention:

"'_____?' Martha cried. 'a moment ago . . . it was ____.'"

"'And before that you thought it was ____,' Will added."

But Lady Bridget keeps right on doing what she does.

She is hugely compassionate and eager to right wrongs, but too impatient to think through what she does know she relies on guesswork unwilling to wait for more evidence before taking action, and too impulsive to consider the consequences of the action she takes.

I want more. I want an intelligent protagonist who is thoughtful, observant, patient, and shrewd. I want to respect the hero.

Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.

Reviewed by Diana Borse, January 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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