This sequel to No Dark Place is set in the 12th century during the period of political upheaval created by the dispute over the English thrown between King Stephen and his cousin Matilda.
The story begins when Hugh de Leon approaches Cristen Haslin’s father to ask his consent to their marriage. Sir Nigel informs him that he must get permission from Guy de Leon, the Earl of Wiltshire, Sir Nigel’s overlord and Hugh’s uncle. Hugh had been raised by a foster father, the Sheriff of Lincoln, and has only recently been acknowledged as the missing child of Guy’s brother and designated Guy’s heir (told in the previous book). When Hugh meets with Guy, his uncle informs him that he has arranged an advantageous wedding for Hugh with Lady Elizabeth de Beaute, daughter and heiress of Gilbert de Beaute, the Earl of Lincoln, that will give the de Leons vast political power in the region. Hugh refuses the match and remains determined to wed Cristen.
The de Beaute party arrives in Lincoln where Elizabeth’s beauty attracts many admirers including Richard Canville, the son of the present Sheriff of Lincoln, Gervace Canville. The Earl is found murdered in the chapel. Richard’s squire sees Bernard Radvers, the captain of the guard, over the body holding a bloody dagger. Bernard is charged with the crime and imprisoned in the dungeon until his trial.
One of the knights at Lincoln Castle travels to seek Hugh’s help. He tells him of the murder and of Bernard’s imprisonment. The supposed motive was that because Hugh was to marry the Lady Elizabeth he would now be named Earl of Lincoln. Hugh agrees to return to Lincoln Castle in hopes of solving the crime and proving Bernard’s innocence, and Cristen soon follows. There he will confront a former adversary and uncover illegal activities.
I have long been a fan of Joan Wolf’s writing. She launches my willing suspension of disbelief as few other authors can. The Poisoned Serpent is a typical example of her work. From the very first scene, I was drawn into the story and engaged by the characters.
Readers shouldn’t be dismayed over the lengthy list of characters at the beginning of the book. One of Ms. Wolf’s real talents is seamlessly managing a multitude of characters. Where other authors might pile on paragraphs and paragraphs of wordy description, she can delineate character, set a scene, and create a mood with only a few spare lines. As Hugh and Cristen move from one location to another, they meet a variety of other persons. In the hands of a less adept author, these characters could quickly become a blur. Ms. Wolf, however, makes each an individual -- even minor characters are vividly portrayed.
Hugh stopped Rufus at the first cottage he came to, where an elderly woman was feeding chickens in her front yard.
All of the characters, even secondary characters, are well drawn, but the most fully developed is Hugh de Leon. Hugh has classic hero written all over him. Even though he is not tall and brawny, he’s highly intelligent, charismatic, loyal, trustworthy, athletic, faithful to a fault, and a born leader. Even his biases are validated. His only flaw -- if it can be properly characterized as a flaw -- is a history of debilitating migraine headaches. His devotion to Cristen in spite of the political advantages to be found in a more distinguished union is explained by the almost psychic connection between them.
He dismounted and stood at the log fence that separated the yard from the road. “Good afternoon, mistress,” he said. “I wonder if you could tell me the way to Linsay.”
The woman straightened up and automatically rubbed the small of her back as if it ached. She turned where she was standing and regarded Hugh at the fence.
“If you bear right at the end of the village, there is a road that will take you straight there,” she said at last. At her feet, the chickens pecked industriously in the dirt, searching for their food.
Hugh smiled. “Thank you, mistress.”
She smiled back, showing toothless gums, and went back to her chores.
The mystery in The Poisoned Serpent is sufficiently complex with enough red herrings to keep things reasonably obscure. Centuries before the word detective was introduced, Hugh sets out to solve the mystery by sheer deductive reasoning worthy of Sherlock Holmes, but there’s a twist at the end that is satisfyingly medieval.
Because No Dark Place sets the characters and their motivation for The Poisoned Serpent, I recommend reading them in order although it’s not absolutely necessary. The second book more than lives up to the promise of the earlier one. I strongly recommend this most recent title and hope this is only the beginning of a long series of historical mysteries featuring Hugh and Cristen.