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Review: The Deepest Grave, by Jeri Westerson
Severn House, 2018. 200 pp. $29

The waning years of the fourteenth century are a bloody time in London, it seems. Recently buried corpses have been seen traipsing about the cemetery at St. Modwen’s church, dragging their coffins. A seven-year-old has confessed to killing his best friend’s father, a wealthy cloth merchant, and a relic related to St. Modwen has disappeared from that same household.

Enter Crispin Guest, the so-called Tracker of London, who solves mysteries like these for sixpence a day. The Deepest Grave is the eleventh novel of the series featuring his adventures, but Westerson catches you up on his previous career as a knight serving John of Gaunt, when Crispin had a title, lands, and power. He lost them because he backed the wrong horse when Richard II ascended the throne. If the series goes another seven historical years, Crispin’s fortunes should improve when Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son, usurps Richard’s crown. Naturally, however, Westerson’s characters don’t know this, and just about everyone reminds Guest, in one way or another, that he’s a traitor lucky to be alive. One who’s kinder is his former lover, Philippa Walcote, mother of the boy who has confessed to murder — an impossibility, by all accounts, yet the child figures to hang unless Crispin can work his rational magic.

Renold Elstracke’s posthumous 1617 print of Dick Whittington, fourteenth-century London’s famous lord mayor, and his equally famous cat (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons)

I like Guest’s comedown, which forces our hero to earn an honest living and abide in humble conditions, with his apprentice, Jack, and Jack’s pregnant wife. This unusual ménage makes for an intriguing setup and offers opportunities that, unfortunately, Westerson fails to exploit. For instance, the narrative never delves past the surface of its disgraced protagonist’s feelings, whether as a once-favored somebody who has lost everything, or a middle-aged man who has never married. The narrative tells you straight out that he has regrets, but I wanted to see them in action, especially his struggle with them, and how others might view them. Further, he’s too decent to chafe at his reduced circumstances, which I find unrealistic and a shame. Anyone of any era would have strong feelings about falling from grace, and this is the fourteenth century, when venality’s the rule rather than the exception.

But Westerson has a different agenda. Character doesn’t drive The Deepest Grave, which is fine, but I wish it were harder to tell the good guys from the bad, or that her people showed more than a single, overriding trait. Also, a few interactions Crispin has when he’s not solving crimes feel predictable and pat; I’d like this book a whole lot better if his private life were messier.

What all this adds up to is a generic feel, which I see echoed in the prose:

He was able to enjoy the night, the stars peeking in and out of the cloud cover, wisping across the night sky between the tall buildings. The glittering stars marched ahead of them on a cloudy trail. The shops and houses were blue in the falling light. Only the wealthier houses had gleaming candles shining through glass windows. The rest were barred with shutters, with only a stripe or two of light.

To me, paragraphs like these—the only exterior descriptions in the novel–give little sense of London or fourteenth-century English life. I get that the sky is cloudy, but I don’t really visualize it, or what Guest thinks about it; and that sky could have been there yesterday as well as five hundred years ago. How tall were the buildings? What did the glass look like? The streets?

I’m also skeptical that Guest’s belief in reason rather than Scripture meets so little surprise or opposition, when such thinking was a burning offense. Does Jack, who grew up a thief as a young child, really quote Aristotle, as Guest does? Would a fourteenth-century man, no matter how erudite or educated, link the heart to the pumping of blood? (Westerson could have made that point a different way, but the phrasing jumped out at me.)

Nevertheless, The Deepest Grave has its charms. Westerson integrates the two stories, the churchyard walks and the merchant’s murder, with skill and economy. She deftly employs “no — and furthermore,” so that nothing comes too easily for Crispin, who makes mistakes. Unlike Crispin the man, the Tracker of London follows a less predictable path, and the puzzles will keep you guessing.

The Deepest Grave makes thinner, less satisfying fare than other historical mysteries from Severn House, but it’s entertaining and clever in its way.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.