I was thinking it had been quite a while since the last Joliffe book from Margaret Frazer and thus was happy to receive the most recent one as a Christmas present last year. That I'm only just now getting around to reading it tells you what my spring has been like. That I completely failed to notice the publication of a sixth book and thus skipped straight to the seventh and latest, A Play of Heresy (2011), tells you what my life has been like. So much for reading in series order.
In the early summer of 1438, Joliffe is on his way to Coventry after some spy-biz errands for his secret employer, the powerful Bishop Beaufort, when he is given an assignment to also investigate the mysterious deaths of the merchant Robin Kydwa and his manservant, with a great deal of suspicion falling on the heretical Lombard sect, the presence of which in Coventry was violently suppressed years before. It still exists quietly among some of the merchant families, however, and while Joliffe inclines more to secular than religious motivations for murder, he cannot entirely discount the possibility.
While Joliffe attempts to investigate the murder, he is simultaneously cast in the play depicting Christ in the Temple, advising the boys playing demons in the Harrowing of Hell, and helping rewrite the Annunciation and Nativity. There's plenty of juicy theatrical goodies, from script revision and costume tricks to the difficulties of men acting women's roles and how to stage scene changes on a pageant wagon. I was in theater-lovers' heaven.
The mystery is competently constructed as well, with a brutal third murder partway through complicating the issue considerably. I certainly didn't untangle the whole thing in advance, though admittedly it's hard for me to concentrate on mystery when theater is dangling in front of my nose. It did all hang together (so to speak) rather nicely by the ending, which was not a simple happily-ever-after one. That's one thing I like about Frazer's books: endings are often messy and unhappy, as in real life.
I certainly recommend A Play of Heresy (and the entire series) to anyone who likes historical mysteries, especially medieval ones, and to those interested in the history of theater. The Joliffe books (and the Frevisse series of which they are a spinoff) are easily the equal of the Cadfael books, and rather less formulaic overall. The books are very sequential, so I would recommend going in series order, starting with A Play of Isaac.
The Joliffe series connects to, but stands independently of, the Frevisse series, though A Play of Heresy does contain a reference that can only be understood by reading the second Frevisse book, The Servant's Tale. The whole chronology and a lot of fascinating historical background notes may be found on Frazer's website.
Read for yourself: