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Wednesday 28 June 2023

‘Too Good To Hang’ by Sarah Hawkswood

Published by Allison & Busby,
18 May 2023.
978-0-7490-2929-9 (HB)

Historians and crime fiction frequently make an excellent pairing, and Sarah Hawkswood is up there with the best of them with her twelfth century Bradecote and Catchpoll series. Hugh Bradecote, lordly but compassionate undersheriff of Worcester, provides the authority and perception as they go a-investigating. His wise and trusty second in command Serjeant Catchpoll adds the common touch. And Walkelin, Catchpoll’s apprentice, is on hand for the grunt work.

This time around a man has been summarily hanged for killing a village priest, but hardly anyone believes he was guilty. As the doughty trio start asking questions, private agendas are revealed, and skeletons tumble out of cupboards. The priest was the kind of priest who gives his church a bad name; the village reeve had designs on the hanged man’s sister. And as if that wasn’t enough potential scandal for one village, there are rumours of cursed treasure having come to light during the annual ploughing which took place not long ago.

In a community of a dozen or so houses there isn’t a large array of suspects, and most are swiftly eliminated. The hunt for evidence spreads to nearby Tewkesbury, where Thorgar, the hanging victim, was planning to enter the religious life at the Abbey; the Abbot’s confirmation of this is all the proof Bradecote needs of the man’s innocence.

And then there’s another murder, and soon afterwards an assault which was clearly intended to kill.

Colourful characters abound: feisty women like Agnes the Healer and Osgyth the hanged man’s sister, and bold girls like Mildred; cheerful men like Pryderi the carpenter, cringing ones like Wilf the Worrier, and self-important ones like Selewine the reeve. The detailed background adds warmth and realism without becoming intrusive: Agnes’s well-ordered cottage and the priests’ ascetic one; the mill where everything is white with flour; the richly appointed abbey. This is history imagined in a way that brings it to vivid life; names like Thorgar and Osgyth, Winflaed, Wystan, Baldred and Leofcwen are unfamiliar to modern eyes but have the ring of truth.

But as well as the richly wrought historical element, there are parallels to modern-day crime fiction: Bradecote, Catchpoll and Walkelin are clearly inspector, sergeant and constable; there’s a fast gallop along the river bank to save a life; and when justice finally prevails, there’s even a gathering of everyone involved for the big reveal. Sarah Hawkswood is proving to be a master of two crafts: crime writing and historical fiction.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Sarah Hawkswood read Modern History at Oxford University and specialised in Military History and Theory of War. She turned from writing military history to mediaeval murder mysteries set in the turmoil of The Anarchy in the mid 12thC, all set in Worcestershire, where she now lives. The Bradecote & Catchpoll series began with Servant of Death (previously published as The Lord Bishop's Clerk) set in Pershore Abbey. The second, Ordeal by Fire, is set in Worcester itself, and there are already another five written. Writing is intrinsic to who she is, and she claims she gets 'grumpy' when there is not another manuscript on the go. Her aim is to create a 'world', one in which the reader can become immersed, and with an accurate historical context, not 'dressing up'. Sarah Hawkswood is a pen name.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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