The Unquiet Bones (Hugh de Singleton, Book 1)
By Mel Starr
Monarch Books, 2008
Set in the Middle Ages in the aftermath of the Black Plague, Mel Starr’s The Unquiet Bones opens with the discovery of a body in the cesspit at the base of Bampton Castle. After a bit of back story explaining how a young Oxford surgeon could meet the lord of the manor a few towns over, Lord Gilbert of Bampton appoints Hugh de Singleton bailiff and tasks him with identifying the victim and her murderer. De Singleton’s training has equipped him to be a surgeon, not a detective, so he relies on a combination of logic and an extremely healthy portion of luck to fulfill the task.
The Unquiet Bones is Starr’s first novel, and at times it shows. There’s a deus ex machina feel to both the twist two-thirds of the way through and the ultimate solution to the mystery.
The story is told almost entirely from de Singleton’s point of view, which means you’ll spend an awful lot of time in de Singleton’s head. Fortunately, it’s a very active one, so it’s a fairly entertaining place to be. De Singleton’s reflections on the benefits of going to mass every day are fairly typical of his wry humor:
As always after mass, I departed the church determined to live better, and in particular, to discover a name for a missing girl. I should attend mass twice each day. Although, come to think of it, there are lords who do for whom the practice seems without benefit. (p. 53)
There is quite a lot of talk about religion and faith in this book. Some of de Singleton’s most cutting observations about his society come in the guise of religious soul-searching as the course of his investigation prompts him to question both the ways of heaven and the lords who, as he puts it, “organize society.”
Although some readers may find all this talk of faith off-putting, I didn’t. One of the tricks to writing compelling historical fiction is to ground your character firmly in his time, but give him enough modern sensibilities to appeal to today’s reader. In my opinion, Starr uses de Singleton’s religious questioning to do just that.
Another rather fun link between de Singleton and the modern world occurs on p. 101, when de Singleton helps prop up the head of the bed of an elderly patient to keep fluid from collecting in the patient’s lungs while he recovers from a broken hip. This caught my attention because in 2009 my husband was involved in an effort to install protractors on every ICU bed at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to help caretakers elevate the beds to the precise 30 degree angle required to make sure fluids ended up in the patient’s stomach, not the lungs (an effective way of preventing pneumonia).
At the time, I read de Singleton’s actions as a clever way for Starr to demonstrate his character’s modern ideas, without jeopardizing his status as a product of the Middle Ages. After all, how hard is it really to prop up the head of the bed with stones? All the equipment de Singleton needed to do the task would have been readily available. But knowing it needed to be done to prevent pneumonia! That sort of brilliance, I thought, requires an advanced, modern sort of mind.
When I mentioned this to my husband, he assured me that the opposite is true. The fact that both de Singleton and my husband raise the head of the bed isn’t proof of de Singleton’s medical sophistication, so much as it is proof that modern medicine is rediscovering the practical wisdom of the older ways.
All that aside, I found The Unquiet Bones to be a satisfying read. Starr supplies enough historical detail to appeal to the history buff in me who prefers to take her history in a more palatable fictionalized form. If you like Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries, you might want to give de Singleton a try.