A Play of Piety (2010) is the sixth book in the Joliffe series of fifteenth-century murder mysteries by Margaret Frazer, fitting in between A Play of Treachery (#5) and A Play of Heresy (#7), which I read back in May without realizing that I'd inadvertently skipped a book.
This tale makes a nice bridge between Joliffe's solo spying in France in the fifth book and his return to full-time playing in the seventh. It opens at harvest time in 1436, with Joliffe newly released from spy training in the service of the Bishop Beaufort only to discover that his troupe of actors have been temporarily halted in their travels by the illness of their leader, Thomas Basset, whose arthritis has flared up to the point of crippling him. He has been taken in by a charity hospital, where his daughter Rose is working in the kitchen and the men of the troupe and Rose's young son Piers are working in the local harvest. Joliffe rejoins them at the hospital, where he ends up temporarily employed as a servant, quickly reminding him exactly how much he prefers being a wandering player. This is one book that does not discreetly elide the problems of bodily functions, and Joliffe spends much more time than he would prefer scrubbing out chamber pots.
Most of the hospital's problems are manageable ones of health and interpersonal friction, and Frazer takes good advantage of the opportunity to show off her research into the cleanliness and religious slant of medieval hospitals. But the routine death of an elderly patient is quickly followed by a one that looks rather less natural. A sudden spate of acute gastric illness surrounding the very unpleasant Mistress Cisily Thorncoffyn, temporarily in residence at the hospital, looks suspiciously like poisoning, but while there are motives aplenty for murder, opportunity and method are trickier to resolve and it takes Joliffe's aid to the local crowner to resolve the mystery.
Woven through the book is Joliffe's ongoing uneasiness at his role as a part-time spy and the lethal skills he now possesses. Joliffe really does enjoy being an actor, but his driving curiosity and desire for something more have now led him into a service he is not altogether comfortable with, and the circumstances of Basset's illness make it it difficult for him to slip back into the life he prefers. This is the darker element threaded through the series during the last few books, and I have mixed feelings about it. I can understand Frazer's desire to draw Joliffe into the greater events of the day and not to write book after book of the same basic plays'n'murder mix...but actually, those are exactly what I'd like to read.
I was a little bit disappointed that there was only one play acted, and that it was one Frazer had used previously, St. Nicholas and the Thief. But despite my personal reservations about the direction of the series, this is still quite a good book, especially for people less obsessively fixated on theater than myself. I genuinely enjoyed learning about some of the routines of a medieval hospital. It's not as much of a bonbon for theater buffs as A Play of Heresy, but it's a fun read with a neat little mystery and the well-researched setting one expects from Frazer.
While this tale stands well on its own, with only passing references to the earlier A Play of Dux Moraud (#2), the whole series is well worth reading (ideally, in series order, starting with A Play of Isaac) for fans of theatrical history and medieval murder mysteries. I also recommend the Frevisse series from which it is a spinoff and in which Joliffe makes several appearances. Frazer's website has all the details on both series and how their chronology interweaves.
Read for yourself: