By Eric Jager
Little, Brown. 323 pp. $29
To compose a whodunit about real events that transpired six centuries ago takes chutzpah, but it seems to suit Eric Jager, whose previous work, “The Last Duel,” is set in the same era. In “Blood Royal,” Louis of Orleans, the brother of French King Charles VI, is ambushed and hacked to death, an act of lèse-majesté that threatens the stability of the realm. The provost (that is, the police chief) of Paris, a knight named Guillaume de Tignonville, is ordered to solve the crime.
The most interesting aspect of this tale is Tignonville’s systematic investigation of the crime without the aid of fingerprints, video cameras or DNA evidence. We generally associate medieval criminal investigations with torture or trial by combat, which were standard procedures, but to solve this case Tignonville relied on extensive interviews of witnesses, a few tangible pieces of evidence and deductive reasoning.
There was no shortage of motives. Louis had manipulated the mentally addled king to enrich himself, and he also seduced other men’s wives — a hazardous hobby even in medieval France. By the debased standards of a hard time, his rascality was conspicuous.
In a few fast-paced chapters we come to admire the resourceful Tignonville as he pursues his quarry and fear for him when his prime suspect turns out to be a powerful lord. Tignonville handles his dilemma adroitly, but justice remains elusive. This is real history, but it is also a murder mystery that fans of Agatha Christie would appreciate, so I will not give the plot away.
The author’s first challenge is to introduce us to a world lit by fire, beset by demons and obsessed with magic. He tries to educate us as his story segues from a murder mystery to a chronicle of medieval anarchy. He makes passing references to a schism in the church and violent gangs ravaging the landscape, but he doesn’t mention the legacy of the Black Death, which had carried off half the population of Paris only a half-century earlier.
This is a fascinating epoch, vividly described in Barbara Tuchman’s erudite and highly readable classic “A Distant Mirror,” which Jager does not cite among his sources. Interested readers should begin with Tuchman before moving on to Jager.