In the Presence of Evil

This murder mystery by Tania Bayard has a cool medieval twist. Christine de Pizan is a rare female scribe in medieval Paris who is bent on proving a lady-in-waiting, Alix de Clairy, didn’t kill her husband. I liked that along the way Bayard focuses on describing typical medieval life for non-nobles. I find this rare since it’s so much easier for authors to figure out what the life of wealthy nobles looked like, ironically because they could afford to hire scribes to write their history.

How does one become a female scribe in medieval France? Christine learned her reading and writing skills from her father who was a physician/astrologer and later an advisor to the king. After her husband, a royal secretary, dies, she needs to support her kids and widowed mom. She starts picking up commissions from the palace, where she has sympathetic connections from when her father and husband worked there. I felt this background was key to making Christine’s occupation and access to the royal court, where the murder occurred, believable.

The mystery itself had a wide range of clues, to the point where with about 20 pages left I was worried whether Bayard could tie up all the loose ends. She did, and I was truly surprised by the whodunnit. The who, what, why also made sense when explained. For me, the mystery propelled the plot, but it wasn’t a page turner. Instead Christine’s family life and her friend’s life as a prostitute was the most intriguing. I really enjoyed learning about all the medieval superstitions too, especially where I could connect them to Harry Potter. I never knew where Rowling’s inspiration for things like mandrakes came from.

This book is the first of a series and I liked it enough that I plan on reading the newest one, In the Shadow of the Enemy. Plus, I’m putting her translation A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century on my list. She references and quotes the transcript in the book, so now I’m very curious about it.

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