Last hours by Minette Walters
Allen and Unwin, 2017. ISBN 9781760294984
(Age: secondary to adult) Highly recommended. Themes: Crime, Black Death, Medieval life and times, Murder. Long time crime fiction writer; Minette Walters, has turned to historical fiction in this new book, destined to be a series about the advent of the plague in rural England in the fourteenth century. Set in the small community of Develish, where Lord Richard rules with an iron fist, some two hundred serfs farm the strips of land outside the manor walls, owing allegiance to their lord in the sharing of grain and produce from their labour. His wife, Lady Anne hates her husband and is in daily conflict with their haughty, spoilt daughter, Eleanor, but when the plague comes to the village, the girl's spitefulness seemingly has no bounds. When Lord Richard leaves for the neighbouring manor house, there to trade his daughter in marriage his entourage is racked by the pestilence that has moved over the county of Dorset.
He and a few of his retainers make it back to Devilish, but are stopped at the moat. Hearing of the ravages of the disease, Lady Anne has issued orders that no one will be allowed in, lest they spread the plague to her people, now all crowded into the manor house and its surrounds within the wall and the moat.
From here, Lady Anne manoeuvres her way into ruling the manor and the villagers, nominating one of them, Thaddeus, as a steward, and fighting the machinations of her daughter, those opposed to what she is doing, the former steward recently hired by her husband, and Thaddeus' lazy family. Having some two hundred people living together, and knowing little of what is happening outside, a murder causes intense concern and it is up to Thaddeus to unravel the mystery. But it appears that Eleanor may be too close to the murder for his comfort, so he takes the five young men implicated in the affray and they leave the manor to look for food and information.
This is a wonderfully involving look at one community and its attempts to keep the plague out of its midst. The minutiae of life lived in such close confines, with people at once suspicious and very fearful, struggling to fill their long days, each day seeing the food supplies running down, and a priest who is little help, shows readers what life for many must have been like in 1348 when probably half of Britain's population died.
This story is a marvelous reconstruction of life in Medieval times, recalling the harsh lives led by the serfs ad their families, owing their lives to an insensitive, ignorant and over bearing man who only sees them as his slaves. to do with as he bids.
A fascinating insight into the background of Walter's writing of the book is given in this interview.