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The Demon’s Parchment by Jeri Westerson

The Demon’s Parchment” is the third in Westerson’s Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, and by far the creepiest. The book is not for the faint of heart and must also be read with its historical context in mind.

The novel is set in 1384 London. Crispin Guest is a former knight who is exiled and stripped of his estate by King Richard II. He had been a knight of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, who exercised considerable influence over his nephew, King Richard, before the boy turned 18. Crispin settles in a poor part of London and becomes known as the Tracker, someone who will solve crimes for pay.

One day Crispin and his servant, Jack, come upon a crowd who have found a dead boy washed up on the shores of the Thames. Suffice it to say, this was a gruesome death, and Crispin finds out that three other boys have been found in similar condition in recent months along the Thames. There has been little attention cast on these serial killings because the dead seem to be beggar boys or possibly members of a secret Jewish community. With the death toll mounting the London and Westminster sheriffs hire Guest to solve the serial murders.

The plot also gets entwined with the story of a Jewish doctor and his son who are brought from southern France to attend to the Queen. Some parchments relating to the ancient Jewish lore about the making of a Golem, a monster made of clay, is stolen from the doctor’s quarters and he hires Guest to find them. There is some thought that the Golem is to blame for the deaths of the boys and that they have been sacrificed as part of a Jewish ritual.

Most of the Jews had been thrown out of England a hundred years earlier by Edward I on rumors of such ritual killings. Now an inquisitor has come to root out the few remaining Jews who have not converted to Christianity. Crispin must face his own prejudice in helping the Jewish doctor to recover the parchment and to discover the truth that the murdered boys.  He concludes that the boys have not been killed as part of any Jewish ritual and in fact at least one was from the secret Jewish community of potters and goldsmiths.

This medieval noir is full of violence and instances of prejudice. Much of the story, however, is rooted in historical fact. The serial murders are similar to one found in the historical record in France 100 years after the setting for this book. The prejudices and indignities cast upon the Jews in medieval England are accurately told. The life that Crispin and his servant would have led are also accurate for the times. Those were dark, dark times full of violence, prejudice, superstition, and strict class distinctions. The Crispin series is only for those readers who are willing to face the reality of those brutal times.

I can’t say that I enjoyed reading this novel, but I did learn something in its telling.

Liz Nichols

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