1361- Orphaned by the Black Death, all John possesses are the tools that belonged to his father, a carpenter, and an uncanny ability to work wood. His travels bring him to Chesterfield, where he find works erecting the spire of the new church. But no sooner does he begin that the master carpenter is murdered and John becomes a suspect.
To prove his innocence John must help the coroner in his search for the killer, a quest that brings him up against some powerful enemies in a town where he is still a stranger and friends are few.
The Eurocrime review:
This extremely readable story is in a new series from the author of the “Richard Nottingham” series of historical mysteries. THE CROOKED SPIRE is set in the year 1360 and introduces John Carpenter. He is known as “carpenter” because that is his trade and he walks from town to town carrying the tools that he inherited from his father – also a carpenter – who died in the Black Death. He had worked in York on the Minster there but then left for Chesterfield and here he finds work erecting a new spire on a church. No sooner than he starts working for the master carpenter than the next day, John finds him murdered when he comes into work the following morning bright and early. As he is only one of the first people to appear on the work site he finds that he is considered a suspect and he discovers that he must prove to the coroner that he is innocent in order to receive back a fine that is made against him as ‘finder’ of the dead body.
John has great difficulty, as a stranger in town, to prove his innocence and soon more deaths follow quite quickly as it appears there are some powerful enemies who do not want John to be successful in his quest. John has very few friends to help him but a young man called Walter is a great help and the boy has a sister, Katherine, who is a source of companionship and aid in other ways.
The author powerfully evokes a sense of time and place with all the detailed and meticulous research he has carried out for this very suspenseful and well plotted story of corruption and murder.
I started this story one evening expecting to read just a few pages to set the scene, but he writes so powerfully that I could not put the book down and go to bed until at least 80 pages had passed! Once you start this very atmospheric book it is difficult to put down as the characters and situations are so vividly described and I had so much sympathy for the protagonist. This is a one of the fastest moving but historically evocative stories that I’ve read in years and I hope that I have the opportunity to read more adventures from this very gifted author in the future.
Publishers Weekly Review:
In the year 1360, John, an itinerant carpenter and the hero of Nickson’s promising new historical series, arrives in Chesterfield, where he finds steady work helping to construct a church spire. When John discovers the body of his supervisor, master carpenter Will, inside the church tower, the local coroner investigating the crime considers him a suspect in Will’s murder. John joins the search for the killer after persuading the coroner of his innocence, but he soon breaks an arm in an accident that leaves him unable to ply his chosen trade. Will isn’t the last to die, and John himself falls under threat when he persists in probing the deaths and questioning the building practices that Will’s successor employs. Nickson (Fair and Tender Ladies and five other Richard Nottingham mysteries set in 18th-century Leeds) offers few surprises, but an affable lead and a convincing depiction of late-medieval England make this a satisfying comfort read.
Booklist starred review:
Nickson steps back in time to the mid-fourteenth century, 400 years earlier than his popular Constable Richard Nottingham series. John, a survivor of the plague that wiped out much of England’s population (including John’s father), finds work on the construction crew of a new church. Almost immediately, the man who hired him is found murdered, and soon after that, John (who found the body) is at the top of the suspect list. John’s only hope of proving his innocence is to help the coroner find the real murderer. It’s not an unfamiliar premise—in fact, the innocent man, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, fighting to find the real killer is a mainstay of the mystery genre—but this story’s strong sense of time and place gives the story all the freshness it needs. Nickson paints precise pictures with words, vividly setting the post-plague backdrop: “He could recall the crops rotting in the fields at harvest time, not enough people still alive to bring them in, and the cows lowing until they died, their carcasses stinking and covered with flies.” He makes us feels as though we are living what seems like a fourteenth-century version of dystopia, giving this remarkable novel a powerful immediacy.