Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Butcher Bird by SD Sykes

review by Maryom

Oswald de Lacy is still trying to find his feet as new Lord of the Manor. Somershill has been as badly affected by the Black Death as anywhere else; fields lie fallow for want of men to plough them, houses sit empty where the inhabitants have died, and the villeins and tenants who once followed their lord's bidding without question are starting to understand the power they now have, particularly demanding that Oswald pays higher wages. As if these troubles weren't enough, a baby is found dead and thrown into a thorn bush. The villagers immediately suspect this is the work of the Butcher Bird - a huge bird seen above Somershill's fields, and rumoured to have been loosed by grieving villager John Burrows from the grave of his wife. Oswald is quick to discount such superstitious thinking, but if the Butcher Bird isn't to blame, then who is? Soon though Oswald is side-tracked by other problems, as his widowed sister's step-daughters run away to London, and he finds himself entangled by the charms of their aunt Eloise....

The Butcher Bird is the second of the Snowshill Manor mysteries, following on from Plague Land, set in the fourteenth century in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, and with Oswald still trying to come to grips with his new position, while solving another murder.

As third son in the family, he'd been destined for the Church, raised in a monastery, and has no inkling of how to run his estate - he could do with a quick course in both farming and 'human resources'. His villagers and servants seem to hold him in little regard, and, if possible, the women in his family value him even less! Whatever Oswald wants to do, they set out to find a way to outwit him.
I'd feel sorry for Oswald, constantly exasperated by them, if he wasn't the one with all the (theoretical) power. The peasants of his manor aren't free to stay or leave as they please, and, by law, wages are set at a low, pre-plague figure. Many are sneaking away, leaving the countryside and heading for town, hoping for a better life there.
Oswald's women-folk are stuck with him though! They're restricted by laws and custom from so many things, and have so very little choice about what will happen to them in life. They each have a way to try to get round these restrictions - Eloise relies on physical attraction, sister Clemence bullies and nags, and his mother deflects all arguments through silliness. It's funny at times to read, but the reality of women's lives wouldn't have been so humorous.

Like Plague Land, this works well as both crime and historical novel; it's as twisty-turny a whodunnit as any contemporary crime novel while capturing the flavour of the period without over-loading the reader with historical facts and figure.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Hodder & Stoughton
Genre - adult fiction, historical crime

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