Tangled Web UK Review September 2000
The Bone-Pedlar by
hbk out June 00
Published by Orion
A very enjoyable first historical novel, which is not really a mystery, as there is no prime murder and we all know from early on who are the villains.
It is written in a light-hearted style, given the amount of death, suffering and general mayhem that is described. Indeed, the writing may be described as whimsical and even jokey in many places, but remains a very entertaining read.
The main figure, ex-Crusader Sir Richard Straccan is obviously intended to become a series character – especially as two of the nasties escape at the end, ready to misbehave again in another book. Straccan earns his living by dealing in religious relics, buying and selling artefacts such as St Thomas’s finger, Saint Cecilia’s rib and the Holy Foreskin!
Relics were big business in 1209, the date of the story, as no self-respecting cathedral or abbey would be without at least one, as an attraction to fee-paying pilgrims.
Much of the action takes place in the Scottish borders, the home ground of the author and a numerous cast of intriguing characters makes for a lively story, which basically revolves around the abduction of Straccan’s small daughter as a sacrifice in the demonic activities of the villains.
The atmosphere of the early thirteenth century is captured very well and Ms Hamilton had undoubtedly done her historical homework most efficiently, both in the contemporary politics (even rotten King John has a walk-on part) and in the grot and squalor of everyday life.
One thing that intrigued me, rather than bothered me, was the author’s wide use of modern idiom and slang in the dialogue. In my own Crowner John novels, set little more than decade before The Bone Pedlar, I always insert a preface saying that the use of false ‘olde worlde’ dialogue was futile, as the language of that time was early Middle English, incomprehensible to us today. Yet Sylvian Hamilton goes to the other extreme, being very fond of exclamations such as ‘piss off’ and ’sod off’ and having one set of monks referring to their rival Augustinians as ‘those crafty buggers’. Maybe such words were extant in the 13th century, but I thought that ‘crap’ was derived from the inventor of the water closet in the 18th ! The author also uses amusing common speech for many of her more lowly characters, with dropped ‘aitches’ and a yokel dialect. The jacket photo of the author portrays a sweet little grey-haired lady, which sits rather incongruously with sentences such as ‘Nor we can’t beg proper, not if one of ‘em’s displaying ’is bum, or oiking up her clouts up or chuckin’ turds at folk or pissing in their washtubs’! This sort of dialogue would probably make Ellis Peters at least twitch in her grave, if not actually turn!
But it’s a highly entertaining book and I look forward to the further exploits of Sir Richard Straccan, bone-pedlar extraordinary.
- Author of the highly acclaimed Crowner John series set in Medieval Devon)