The Queen's Man takes place in medieval England, during the unsettled winter of 1192-93. The ship bringing Richard the Lionhearted home from the Third Crusade has been reported wrecked at sea, but news of the King's survival has not yet reached Britain. In his absence his mother, the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, has been overseeing his kingdom. But his brother John is building his own army and plans to rule. Meanwhile, the Holy Roman Emperor and King Philip of France find it serves their purposes to keep the English wondering about Richard's fate.
These events undergird the novel's background, and also the mystery that Justin, its main character, must solve. Riding away from Winchester in the midst of a blizzard, he stumbles upon a robbery and murder in progress. The victim, a goldsmith named Gervase Fitz Randolph, gives Justin a sealed letter to deliver to Queen Eleanor, then dies.
Justin puts his other, half-formed plans on hold while he carries the letter to London. After he delivers it, the Queen asks the young man to investigate Gervase's death. This task takes up the rest of the book, and requires Justin to travel back and forth, several times, between Winchester and London.
The land and cities of medieval England are brought to life in brief but evocative word pictures. We see the ice-coated tree branches and the paw prints Justin notes along the road out of Winchester, just before the fatal attack. His later investigations take him into a wide cross section of medieval life: to a Benedictine abbey and leper house, the goldsmith's shop, and to a grain mill just outside the town, ominous in the dark of the moon.
In London he goes from Eleanor's court in the Tower to a smithy, and lodgings on crowded but respectable Gracechurch Street. During his detective work he also visits more low-life parts of the city: several gaols (the British spelling for jails); the Southwark stews where prostitutes ply their trade; and Moorfields, a marsh where another body is found.
These scenes are skillfully drawn so that a reader can easily picture them, yet without breaking the medieval point of view of the narrator. For example, upon first entering London, Justin notices that the streets are unpaved. This accounts for the dust and mud, and it also reminds readers that this era indeed has courtyards and other places that are paved—with cobblestones. Another realistic touch is the use of two languages. Justin, who has been educated by monks and in a noble house, and people of "gentle birth" including the sheriffs, speak French as well as English. Ordinary people speak only the latter. The meshing of two languages into what we now know as English, even Middle English, had not been completed at the time of the story.
Penman's immersion in things medieval shines through each scene of this novel. Although a relatively small part of it deals with actual historical events, The Queen's Man offers an absorbing vicarious adventure in late tenth-century Britain.
Penman first earned her literary reputation with big, intricate novels about British historical figures. Her The Sunne in Splendour (1982) is a sympathetic novel about Richard III of England. Other novels followed, centered on British historical figures such as Henry III and King John's daughter Joanna. All of these books were praised by critics for their historical accuracy and level of detail, while still telling a good, absorbing tale of human events and passions.
In this, her first venture into the mystery genre, the historical backdrop of Justin's assignment is used sparingly. Aside from a few early passages on Eleanor's unique life and position, historical details mostly appear in dialogue. The King's disappearance, and John's intentions, are speculated on in high quarters and low. Other events of the time, like the ambiguous end of the Third Crusade itself, are not mentioned. This may reflect a historical reality—these matters were so far from common people's concerns that they did not talk...
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