If you like your mysteries rich in detail and characterization, historical in nature, with smart female leads and with a substantial story that requires a bit of effort and a little time to play out--but one by which you will be generously rewarded, I have one I can happily press into your hands right now. When Gallic Books offered me a copy of Andrea Japp's The Lady Agnes Mystery, Volume I (La Dame Sans Terre 1: Les Chimens de la Bête, translated from the French by Lorenza Garcia) I instantly thought-Yes!-when I read the description. Then I considered the length and my enthusiasm was tempered just a little bit. With longer books, there is just more to love, right? But my track record of late with chunky books is spotty and so I tend to be hesitant before embarking on a really lengthy read, and this mystery weighs in at just under 600 pages. I'm so glad I took the leap, however. I loved Lady Agnes (and you can read that as Lady Agnes the character and Lady Agnes the novel) and can't wait to begin reading the second volume which sits next to my bed.
So, rich in detail and characterization. The story is set in early 14th century France. Now you'll know that with a setting like this and with a female lead there are only so many avenues open to her if you want to keep the story as close to reality as you can. Lady Agnes is a young widow with a daughter and a stepson of sorts. She is titled but not wealthy and has a half brother, Eudes, of questionable morals and a lascivious eye. Lady Agnes is smart. She is both smart and intelligent as well as compassionate--meaning she has book smarts as well as the innate ability to process knowledge as well as the ability to deal with the difficult situations that arise in her life with tact and aplomb. Mathilde is her daughter by marriage and she has a step son named Clément who she raises almost as her own. He is the bastard son of one of one of her serving maids who died. Mathilde is much loved but has a selfish streak. Clément, however, has the same intelligence as his step-mother, maybe even more, and is fiercely loyal and utterly adoring of Lady Agnes.
The novel is peopled with religious nuns, religious fanatics, Lords and Ladies, a French king, Knights Hospitaller, Knights Templar, other notable figures taken from history as well as made up and one very wicked and malicious Inquisitor. This book has three appendices one of which is pages of notes referring to to references in the story. But wait, don't let this put you off or scare you. You needn't worry too much about the historical references. They are indeed helpful as background information and shedding light on the story and the period in which it takes place, but I didn't spend most of the book flipping back and forth. This is, in a way, a history lesson, but one you will appreciate and never need worry about becoming a dry exposition or litany of facts. It all meshes together nicely so you don't actually 'feel it'. Actually it didn't take long before I found myself lost in the storytelling and had to remind myself I could read more about a character or an event or some little detail that piqued my curiosity.
Mostly I just got caught up in Lady Agnes's life, which is relatively happy if she can keep Eudes at bay. So, yes, Lady Agnes is a smart female lead. Being a widow, and a respected one with a good name, she has a little leeway, to live as she pleases. Unfortunately someone, more than one someone actually, is complicating her life. A murder occurs on her land and by the body, carved into the ground is a letter A. And then another. A rather modern term, but it applies here--Lady Agnes is being framed. She is savvy enough to use her wit and her tongue, she is exceedingly articulate, to smooth things over.
So-detail, interesting and believable characters, historical, smart women and maybe the most important element--a substantial story. This is a story to chew and to ruminate on. It is not a simple murder mystery, which was my first impression. The impression is correct, but the story is much, much richer than that. Japp works within the framework of the period. And then there is a little something else that comes in the way of a prophecy--keeping in mind that the world at this time was guided by religion. It involves Lady Agnes, birth charts, star charts, power struggles and changes within the Church which could change the world as the characters know it. This is a world where a drop of poison could remove from power someone and change the course of the world. A world filled with fear--of the Inquisition. And Lady Agnes is about to get caught up in it all.
This is a novel that might not be for everyone but if you like juicy historical novels--juicy in details and storytelling that is--that are literary in nature and ooze historical detail (no worries--this is not a story that 'wears historical facts' like a burden) you might find yourself swept away by the story just like I was. Think Umberto Eco and Jean-François Parot (must get back to those books as well) with maybe a dash of Judith Merkle Riley. There is nothing fluffy about The Lady Agnes Mystery. It does call for a little bit of effort by the reader, but you'll be well rewarded for it. It has just the right amount of suspense to keep the pages turning.
And now on to The Lady Agnes Mystery, Volume 2. The first book came to a satisfying end, but there was also promise to more of the story, of which many threads still dangle. I'm ready for another good story (or in this case, a continuation . . .) to take me far away.