The national bestseller: A medieval murder mystery full of the wonders of the time—and lessons for our own time—by a master storyteller.
A portentous opening sentence-``It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on''-sets the tone for Booker Prize winner Unsworth's (Sacred Hunger) gripping story. Indeed, a larger spectre than those two deaths hangs over this tale set in 14th-century England. The Black Plague is abroad in the land, and here it also symbolizes the corruption of the Church and of the nobility. One bleak December day, young Nicholas Barber, a fugitive priest who has impulsively decamped from Lincoln Cathedral, comes upon a small band of traveling players who are burying one of their crew. He pleads to join them, despite the fact that playing on a public stage is expressly forbidden to clergy. His guilt and brooding fear of retribution pervade this taut, poetic narrative. Footsore, hungry, cold and destitute, the members of the troupe are vividly delineated: each has strengths and weaknesses that determine his behavior when their leader, Martin, suggests a daring plan. In the next town they reach, a young woman has been convicted of murdering a 12-year-old boy, on evidence supplied by a Benedictine monk. Desperate to assemble an audience, Martin suggests that they enact the story of the crime. This is a revolutionary idea in a time when custom dictates that players animate only stories from the Bible. As the troupe presents their drama, many questions about the murder become obvious, and they improvise frantically, gradually uncovering the true situation. This, in turn, leads to their imprisonment in the castle of the reigning lord and their involvement in a melodrama equal to the one they have acted. Among the strengths of this suspenseful narrative are Unsworth's marvelously atmospheric depiction of the poverty, misery and pervasive stench of village life and his demonstrations of the strict rules and traditions governing the acting craft; underlying everything is the mixture of piety and superstition that governs all strata of society. Though sometimes he strays into didactic explanations, Unsworth searchingly examines the chasm between appearance and reality and the tenuous influence of morality on human conduct. Author tour. (Nov.)