1 Mar 2013

Review of 'The Unquiet Bones' by Melvin Starr

The Unquiet Bones: The First Chronicle of Hugh de Singleton 

"Hugh of Singleton, fourth son of a minor knight, has been educated as a clerk, usually a prelude to taking holy orders. However, he feels no real calling-despite his lively faith-and he turns to the profession of surgeon, training in Paris and then hanging his sign in Oxford. 
 Soon after, a local lord asks Hugh de Singleton to track the killer of a young woman whose bones have been found in the castle cesspool. Through his medical knowledge, Singleton identifies her as the impetuous missing daughter of a local blacksmith.
The young man she loved-whom she had provoked very publicly-is quickly arrested and sentenced at Oxford. But this is just the beginning of the tale.

The story of Singleton's adventure unfolds with realistic medical procedures, droll medieval wit, romantic distractions, and a consistent underlying sense of Christian compassion."
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I wish I had read this novel before 'A Corpse at St Andrew's Chapel' the second in the series, as in my opinion it was far better.

For starters, it was interesting learning something about Hugh's life and background before he came to Bampton, and his motivation to become a surgeon. His initial struggles to find work and his place in the world seem in a way relatable.
As expected, Hugh is initially reluctant to investigate the matter of the bones found in the castle cesspit, and doubts his own ability yet he does turn up important leads in the process. Ultimately though, his following the seemingly obvious conclusion almost leads to tragic consequences, which knocks his confidence even further.
In this sense, Hugh's character is very human and endearing, he needs encouragement (as we all do) and is well aware of his own inadequacies.

The way in which faith is also woven into the story works well.
Hugh as stated before is a close friend of the theologian and scholar John Wycliffe, who questioned many of the core teachings of the Catholic Church. He is also very much our protagonist's mentor, who causes him not only question some of his choices and decisions, but sometimes helps to prod him in the right direction. Wycliffe is a fascinating figure historically, and his inclusion in these novels really adds to them as a way of exploring religious themes, and making the novels more appealing to non-Catholics, but also as an interesting character.

There were also plenty of interesting descriptions of surgery and medical procedures, which are another thing I enjoy about this series. Hugh's use of herbs almost harks back to Cadfael, and gives some fascinating insights into an often misunderstood profession. The investigatory process also gives some opportunity for presenting (and in some ways critiquing) the fourteenth century legal and justice system.
There is even a hint of romance as Hugh is rather enamored by his employer Lord Gilbert's sister, despite the differences in rank and station.
Alongside my reservations expressed in other reviews about the character's accents seeming a little unrealistic I only had one or two issues. One was that Hugh seemed a little too sympathetic to those who turned out to be behind the crimes, which was in a sense understandable considering their circumstances, and the 'self-defence' story did not really seem entirely convincing.
Also, as others have pointed out, once Hugh was on the right track, it was not hard to guess whodunnit- some time before this was revealed.

Overall 'The Unquiet Bones' is a great first installment to the series which should be enjoyed by both fans of historical fiction and mystery stories, and those who enjoy clean reads.

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