The Monastery Murders – E.M. Powell
The Monastery Murders is the second masterful book in the Barling and Stanton series, from E.M. Powell. It is a novel full of rich characters, a scintillating murderous plot and a backdrop truly immersed in medieval, 12th century England.
Fairmore Abbey is a monastery of the Cistercian Order located in a secluded area in the remote Yorkshire countryside. Abbot Philip of Fairmore, through King Henry’s great justice Ranulf de Glanville, has requested Aelred Barling, the King’s clerk, to investigate a gruesome murder at the abbey. Barling and his assistant, Hugo Stanton, are dispatched in the dead of winter to investigate. No sooner have they arrived at the abbey than the death toll starts to mount, and each, a very calculated and brutal death. It is obvious there is a plan and that that plan may be following a very popular storyline in a book called The Vision of Tundale. The book tells the story of a knight (Tundale) who, at the moment of death, is visited by an angel who shows him the fate and forms of punishment of sinners through 9 levels of torture that descend to Satan in the darkness of hell. There is a resemblance to Dante’s Inferno within The Vision of Tundale, which is an actual book written by an Irish monk, Marcus, in 1149, 2 centuries before Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Elaine’s writing is just a joy to experience and her ability to build on layers of mystery, suspense and intrigue are amazing. I love a story where we pick-up unexpected information from sources not always straight in front of you. In the opening scene, there is the public spectacle of bear baiting and both Barling and Stanton watch on for a period. This little scene was used to such massive effect as we appreciate how this was all a normal part of public festivities during that period and also how our main characters responded in ways that help build our understanding of them.
What really sets this book apart, is the wonderful characterisation of Aelred Barling and Hugo Stanton. As a duo, they possess background, context, characteristics, motivations, conflicts, uncertainties, skills and dialogue that are totally unique and full of depth. Their characters are full of varying personality shades as they both contribute at many levels of ability and knowledge. Barling is a King’s clerk and has a position of authority which frames his intelligent and methodical approach. Stanton is the younger assistant who is also quick-witted, able to read people very well and has a moral compass which challenges our perception of the lower class at the time. They both have their failings, which get exposed at times, showing they are human and can be wrong-footed. Their relationship is gradually maturing and trusting but at times Stanton still oversteps his position to the admonishment of Barling. In my opinion, they are a fantastic duo, much better than the Matthew Shardlake and Jack Barak partnership in the C.J. Sansom series.
This is a book I would highly recommend and while it’s a standalone story, there is a lot of benefit in reading The King’s Justice, first.
I would like to thank E.M. Powell, Amazon Publishing and NetGalley for an ARC version of the book in return for an honest review.