As Nancy Herriman proved with her books set in 1860’s San Francisco, she is an able and entertaining storyteller, no matter what the era. She’s changed her setting to Elizabethan England, and given readers Bess Ellyott, a widowed herbalist living with her brother. She’s fled London after the suspicious death of her husband and finds herself attempting to comfort her distraught sister, who insists her husband is missing.
As Bess and her brother try to calm their sister Dorothie, they must wait to look for him, as there’s not only a curfew in place, it’s very foggy. When morning comes and her brother-in-law is nowhere to be found, her brother Robert, Dorothie and Bess all set out to search and unfortunately find the man hanging from a tree. A ruling of suicide was devastating; not only could the body not be buried in a church graveyard, all the property of the dead person was confiscated by the crown, and as suicide (or felo-de-se) is in fact the verdict of the coroner, Dorothie sets down to a glum watch as her household is dismantled.
Like any detective worth her salt, however, Bess is not only certain she saw something proving murder on the dead man’s neck, she’s willing to break curfew and dig him up to prove her point. She’s helped out by the local constable (who seems to be sweet on her) and together they set out to prove that the death was murder, not suicide. She’s undertaking all of her investigations while her brother is out of town, and she’s in charge of the household.
Suspicion seems to fall on a local Catholic family, especially as there seems to be some kind of mysterious Jesuit lurking in their woods, and when Bess is called to attend to an injury suffered by one of their servants, she is able to do a little detecting while she’s binding a cut. Her volatile sister is little help, and her niece, infatuated with the scion of the Catholic house, is torn, but Bess and the constable work well together to piece together a solution.
Part of the interest and charm of this novel comes from the time period, and from Herriman’s exploration of customs and mores different from our own. She’s also adept at creating a vivid setting and then in filling that setting with interesting, believable and fleshed-out characters, something that adds depth to any novel, and it certainly does to this one. Moreover she sets a brisk pace for herself with lots of action and twists of the plot. This is an excellent start to a new series.