Troubled Bones, Jeri Westerson

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Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and in particular, his Canterbury Tales, marks the transition in English Literature from Latin to English. Or so I always thought. But this is what wikipedia has to say:

It has been suggested that the greatest contribution of The Canterbury Tales to English literature was the popularisation of the English vernacular in mainstream literature, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer’s time, and several of Chaucer’s contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, the Pearl Poet, and Julian of Norwich—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was seminal in this evolution of literary preference.

I’ve owned Langland’s Piers Plowman since my student days but I think I’d rate it as even more difficult to take in than Finnegan’s Wake.

Chaucer was a well-off bureaucrat, under the protection of the first Duke of Lancaster, who was third son of Edward III and acted as regent during the minority of his nephew, Richard II (1367-1400), King of England (1377-1399).

I’ve been listening to The Canterbury Tales as I work – one prologue, one tale then listen to something else. A couple of posts ago I was making my way backwards from Jane Austen (here). Well I guess this is as far as I go unless someone records Beowulf. Anyway, one of the something elses I listened to was a work of ‘Medieval Noir’ by American woman, Jeri Westerson, one of a series apparently, featuring fourteenth century private eye and disgraced knight, Crispin Guest and starring, in Troubled Bones at least – Geoffrey Chaucer.

The plot, as a best I can remember a few days later, is that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who makes a great deal of money from pilgrims coming to worship at the tomb of Thomas à Beckett, gives Guest and his offsider/apprentice 13 year old Jake the job of guarding the saint’s bones which he says he thinks will be stolen by Lollards (early Protestants).

On arriving at his hotel in Canterbury Guest finds a group of pilgrims, including Chaucer whom he hasn’t seen for some years when they were both in the service of Lancaster. The pilgrims who are of course the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales, include the Wife of Bath, the Franklin, the Pardoner, the Summoner etc.

On the first night the Prioress is murdered in the Cathedral while Guest sleeps nearby ‘guarding’ à Beckett’s tomb, and then when he goes to investigate the screams of the Prioress’s attendant, the bones go missing. Do we have one crime or two? What is causing unrest amongst the cathedral’s monks? Is the monk-treasurer on the take? Chaucer, who is clearly a Lollard appears to be involved. The Pardoner and the Summoner are up to something, are they involved in the murder, in the theft of the bones? (A Pardoner appears to be an intermediary in the sale of indulgences by the Church, something about which Martin Luther got very agitated a century later.) The Knight and the Prioress had previously been involved in a legal dispute over land, a dispute in which Chaucer had given evidence. The Knight is still angry.

And so we go on with leads and counter-leads. It’s an interesting and well-written work and, except for the idea of a private investigator, probably quite well done in terms of historical fiction. Guest inevitably gets his rocks off with Alison, the Wife of Bath (whom I think is younger in Troubled Bones than she is in the Tales). Jake’s head pops up at all the wrong times and I think the author occasionally forgets he is only 13. But that is just a minor quibble. Give it a try.

The version of The Canterbury Tales I have been listening to, from Brilliance Audio Classic Collection read by David Butler (2002) is straightforward and enjoyable, clearly a modern translation (the table below is extracted from Wikipedia), although it doesn’t say so anywhere on the cover, however not so modernised that you lose all sense of the original, and consists of eight tales and their prologues.

Original Text Modern Translation
This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle, This friar boasts that he knows hell,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder; And God knows that it is little wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder. Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle For, by God, you have ofttimes heard tell
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle How a friar was taken to hell

 

Jeri Westerson, Troubled Bones, 2011. Out of print (self-published?). Audio and ebook versions available here

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1387?. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio The Classic Collection, read by David Butler, 2002