Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: The Midwife's Tale and The Harlot's Tale by Sam Thomas

The Midwife's Tale
A Mystery

Sam Thomas

Published: January 8, 2013
Minotaur Books
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
Series: A Midwife's Mystery
Pages: 308 (ARC edition)

First I want to applaud Sam Thomas for writing historical fiction/mystery with an attractive, widow of means, Bridget Hodgson, as the novel's central character.  From the start I was impressed by his selection of this independent woman who was very much a loyal subject, she moved in the shadows of society because of her profession, making her the perfect amateur sleuth.  Thomas also pulls the reader in within the first paragraph that sets the novel in York during the English Civil War.  The city is under siege and with it has brought out the immorality, treachery, corruption and deprivation of some of the citizens of York. 

What I loved most about Bridget aside from her determination to remain single, to work as a midwife, even though her earnings were not necessary, but for her love of the work.  She is tough, but so fragile, still overcome with grief, especially for her little girl, but emotions aside if there is something that must be confronted Bridget is a straight ahead full steam woman.  She is a force to be reckoned with, which earns her both respect and scorn from the people of York.  Like most crime fighters she has a partner, in The Midwife's Tale, this comes in the form of Martha, a trusted servant, a skillful and helpful assistant at birthing's, but who has some secrets herself. 

We first encounter the guile and cunning of these two women when Bridget's dear friend, Esther, is accused and then convicted of murdering her husband.  Esther is sentenced to be burnt at the stake and the situation seems hopeless.  Hopeless that is to everyone except Bridget and Martha, who immediately begin to methodically deconstruct what they know about Esther, her husband, her servant's and the case made against her.  As most good deeds, Bridget and Martha's work to help a friend leads to discover a far reaching plot involving many of the town's most respected families.

Bridget holds an unwavering adherence to her midwife oath, "to do no harm", and with that she plunged headlong into the exigent mystery and refused to ignore warnings, threats or attempts on her life as she slowly unraveled the mystery that would lead her all the way to the King of England himself.

Sam Thomas gives his reader a story that repeals the reader further.  It is full of the twists and turns one expects in historical mystery which make for an enjoyable fast moving read.  I would imagine that with a few more novels under his belt Sam Thomas will stand shoulder to shoulder with C.J. Samson.  Thomas has learned the craft of characterization and rich descriptive detail and I firmly believe in time the historical backdrop will be further weaved into his narrative.  Though, on second thought, perhaps that is what Thomas intended; as his main character is a head's down, get through it woman and the war, nor anything for that matter gets between Bridget and her goal, including Civil War.

I highly recommend this novel and look forward to more from Sam Thomas in the future.

The Harlot's Tale
A Midwife Mystery

Sam Thomas

Publication Date: January 7, 2014
Minotaur Books
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
Series: A Midwife's Mystery
Hardcover; 320p
ISBN-10: 1250010780

My hopes and prayers were answered as The Harlot's Tale arrived on the heels of my completion of The Midwife's Tale and I immediately sat down to see what fate held in store next for Bridget.  As much as I imagine Bridget wished that life would return to at least what it had been before she became wrapped up in the criminal quagmire that surrounded the fate of her friend, Esther.  Still working as a midwife, now with Martha as a recognized apprentice, she is back to solving murders as well. 

Puritan religious fanaticism has made its way to York and infiltrated the government, which add further hardship to most citizens' lives as they must perform their work and do so in a manner pleasing to the Puritanical city government officials.   As the Puritans rise in political power in York the city attracts a   fanatical preacher, who arrives in York with not only his family, but a substantial number of devoted followers as well.  Seemingly overnight strict Puritanical religious fervor is whipped up in York.  Mysteriously, around the time of the preacher's arrival the city's prostitutes, as well as a pair of adulterers, start turning up murdered and mutilated with biblical quotes left behind at the scene.  Is it the fervor that the preacher has whipped up amongst the citizenry that has pushed someone over the edge or could it be someone among the large group that surround the preacher himself?  Anything is possible.

Bridget becomes involved with the investigation with her brother in law, a York alderman, asks her to inspect the body of a woman who has been found alongside a man, who has also been murdered.   As a midwife Bridget serves as a medical examiner of sorts as that which concerns the genitals of the woman.   The women are horrified to find that the woman has been horribly mutilated and within her hand a note with a Bible verse written upon it.  Suddenly, Bridget and Martha are faced with a complex and challenging mystery and an ever increasing number of victims.  Bridget feels the strain and the burden of the task that will take every ounce of her influence among all the female citizens of work, her instincts and her hardheaded refusal to quit until the murder or murders are found and stopped. 

The preachers are quick to call the deaths part of God's judgment on the city for its sins and inflame the already tense situation by threatening that more is still to come as York is far from being the godly city it should be.  In The Harlot's Tale, Thomas successfully sets his crime in a historical setting and allows that setting to influence his narrative.  The societal struggles confounded with the rise of fanatical Puritanism as well as the vivid description of the squalor which many of York are forced to live in as well as the numerous orphans running the street, with no one to care or who will care for them, resorting to thievery to survive, which further plunges the city into the lawless hole that the killer thrives on.  Not only the city itself but the narrow minded citizenry holding tight to a societal system that no longer works, but as yet has nothing to replace it, so it seems that scornfulness and judgmental attitudes are in the majority amongst the citizens of York and it seems that nothing or no one will be able to help Bridget and Martha get to the truth and put a stop to the killing.

Each morning Bridget fears news of another death and personally feels the urgency to solve these crimes and the responsibility for not being able to do so before another woman has to die.  Just as Bridget agonizes over the responsibility that she has been given so will the reader become more anguished and frantic for the pair to find the truth which I can assure you is worth the ride! 

The Harlot's Tale is a brisk, well told story in which Thomas further perfects the interjection of a criminal suspense plot immersed within a specific historical setting and time period and successfully keeps his narrative in touch with the known history of the period.  Truly, Thomas has made an innovative and uniquely creative contribution to the sub-genre of crime/suspense within the genre of historical fiction itself. 

Do not miss Sam Thomas' creative, suspenseful and historical novel, The Harlot's Tale; it is truly an irresistible read.

About the Author

Sam Thomas is an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy. He has published articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to colonial Africa. Thomas lives in Alabama with his wife and two children.

For more information, please visit Sam Thomas' website and blog.  You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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