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THE HARLOT’S TALE by Sam Thomas: Book Review

The year is 1645, three years into The English Civil War (1642-1651).  The city of York has fallen into the hands of the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell; religious fanaticism is well underway.  Into the city comes Hezekiah Ward, preaching the Puritan doctrine to its citizens, calling fire and brimstone down on those who deviate from the doctrines of the Godly Party.  At this time, all of England was Christian; Jews had been expelled in 1290 and would not return until 1657, and there were no Muslims in the country.

Shortly after Hezekiah’s entry into York, a series of gruesome murders targeting prostitutes and their clients begins.  Lady Bridget Hodgson, a wealthy gentlewoman and landowner, has been a midwife for some years.  She does not discriminate between the high-born ladies of the city and its unfortunate whores, so she is not surprised by a summons from her brother-in-law Edward to examine the body of a murdered prostitute.  Upon entering the woman’s home, Bridget and her assistant, Martha Hawkins, are horrified to see the bloody bodies of a woman they know as a harlot and an unknown man lying across her.

As she examines the bodies Bridget notices a crumpled bit of paper clutched tightly in the woman’s hand and a similar one in the man’s hand, with the numbers of chapters and verses from the Bible written on each.  Examining her Bible when she returns home, Bridget reads the two verses, one from Isiah concerning whores and one from Revelation urging repentance.  Martha voices the thought that both women have:  “So the murderer thinks he is doing God’s work?”

It seems as if each sermon by Hezekiah Ward is followed by a murder, although the methods vary.  And Lady Bridget is getting the feeling that her brother-in-law Edward, whom she greatly admires, is perhaps none-too-eager for her to look deeply into the crimes, preferring that his son Joseph, one of the town’s constables, investigate.  But given Joseph’s strong ties to the Puritans, Bridget is not certain that he can be trusted.

Bridget’s favorite nephew is Joseph’s younger brother Will.  Just as Will is Bridget’s favorite, Joseph is their father’s, and this of course leads to bad feelings and jealousy between the two brothers. 

Lady Bridget was widowed twice, bore two children who died young, and when this novel (the second in the series) opens, she owns a large house and is in possession of various lands and a good deal of money.  She occupies an exalted place in York’s society, but her favored position doesn’t stop her from being compassionate toward the many townspeople who are less fortunate than she is, especially toward the women she sees who have been forced by social and economic circumstances into selling their bodies.

The Harlot’s Tale is an exciting read that takes the reader into what is known as the Early Modern Period of history.  Lady Bridget is a wonderful heroine who has brains and convictions but still is hampered by society’s views on the proper place of women.  What allows her to speak her mind relatively freely are the facts of her own aristocratic birth and the high position that her late husband’s brother holds.  She is a woman to be admired and to be followed (hopefully) in future novels in this excellent series.

Sam Thomas is a historian with a Ph.D. in history with a focus on Reformation England.  You can read more about him at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.








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