My thanks to Allison and Busby and NetGalley for a review copy of the book.
Wolf at the Door is book 9 in Hawkswood’s Bradecote and Catchpoll series of mediaeval mysteries, something that I didn’t realise when requesting the book, but I am very glad I didn’t for I may have hesitated and missed out on discovering an interesting historical mystery series.
The book is set in Feckenham Village (and Forest) in Worcestershire in 1144, in the period when there was civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud (also the period when the Cadfael mysteries are set); Feckenham was historically a royal forest in which the King had rights over game, grazing and wood. In our story, in the village of Feckenham, the body of Durand Wuduweard, the much disliked keeper of the forest is discovered, in a badly mauled state, by his no-good son, William. William begins to point fingers to this being the work of a wolf, or worse still, a werewolf, causing much panic among the villagers.
The matter reaches the ears of our main characters, the Undersheriff Lord Bradecote, and Serjeant Catchpoll. Catchpoll who hears of it first, is convinced that William fitzDurand or William Swicol (deceitful/treacherous) as he is known by them is involved but can’t immediately point at how or why. A wolf is involved in the killing, but this can be no ordinary wolf for no wild animal would have entered the house of the Wuduweard if a fire was burning, and the position in which the body is found is not the work of a wolf either. But with rumours and fears of a wolf and even a werewolf spreading like wildfire, the experienced and shrewd Catchpoll calls in Hugh Bradecote the Undersheriff, and William de Beuchamp, the Sheriff himself. They are assisted by young Walkelin, Catchpoll’s apprentice.
While the Sheriff’s men are convinced that the murder is not the work of an animal alone, rumours and fear must be quietened so they plan to investigate while the Sheriff himself must lead a false hunt to calm his people. But things don’t go quite as planned as more events take place adding to the mystery. On the one side we follow Bradecote, Catchpoll and Walkelin as they try to discover what it is that William Swicol is up to; on the other we get a glimpse into the activities of Swicol and his band, getting a few hints but not seeing any of the secrets they hide. With marauders beginning to strike and more gruesome deaths, the sherival team must work fast as Swicol and his gang give effect to their big plan.
I had requested this mystery because of its historical setting, and found this element very well done. The atmosphere, descriptions, and characters felt really authentic and true to the time. From the meals of pottage to the language, the atmosphere in the village, and people’s mores and reactions, all of it felt apt to the time and I enjoyed it very much.
The two main characters, Catchpoll and Bradecote also appealed to me a lot. Catchpoll is the elder of the two, perceptive and also has some cheek in him. Bradecote while the former’s social superior has no airs about himself, and works well with the former (and is even sometimes even dictated to by him). I loved the banter between the two.
As concerns the mystery, while to an extent we do know part of the whodunit, and we do get an insight into what William Swicol’s band is upto, we don’t really know all, so the mystery involves why, what they are up to, as well as some mystery as to who all are involved with Swicol. I enjoyed watching how the sherival party conducted their inquiries (with young Walkelin falling into a trap once, and also getting some help from unexpected quarters), and how information and messages were sent to both authorities and people. The mystery had its twists and while I had guessed one part (mostly because of a TV mystery set in a completely different time and context that I had watched last week), there was enough of a surprise for me to enjoy the book.
Also, the fact that this was a later volume in the series didn’t really affect my enjoyment of it; there are references to a few past cases and things, but none of it affects one’s reading of the story, so this can be easily read as a standalone.
I also liked Hawkswood’s writing, and the book kept me engaged for the most part, though in some places, it did move a little slower than I’d have liked. But a really interesting read overall, with a mystery that does keep one guessing, likeable characters and authentic historical detail. I shall certainly be looking up previous instalments, and await the next one in the series eagerly.