The Last Hours is the first book from Minette Walters in 10 years and, as historical fiction, is a departure from her gripping psychological crime novels. The author explains she was tired of writing the same style of novel and became fascinated by this period after finding the Black Death entered England just nine miles from where she lives in Dorset. Her research and writing were driven by the knowledge that the victims of the plague, many buried in nameless graves near her home, were ‘expunged from history as surely and brutally as any unknown murder victim’ (source: The Guardian, May 2017).
It is summer 1348 when the mysterious sickness begins to spread across the countryside from the port of Melcombe. It kills quickly, sometimes in less than a day, with black swellings erupting on the neck, armpits and groin. Such an illness has never been seen before and the church asserts the sickness is a punishment from God for the sins and wickedness of the people, causing fear and dread to spread like wild fire.
The Lady Anne of the Manor of Develish, although raised and educated in a convent, has little faith in the church and even less in her drunken parish priest. She can read and write, has some knowledge of medicines and healing, and makes her own plans to protect her villagers. While Sir Richard is away arranging the marriage of their daughter Eleanor, she brings all the serfs into the moated manor to protect them from the sickness. It’s a timely move as, when her husband returns, he and his men are already infected and she refuses them entry. Only Gyles, a Saxon man at arms to Sir Richard survives.
Their situation is becomes increasingly perilous with marauding bands threatening the safety of Develish as the death toll across the countryside mounts, fields are abandoned and food is harder to find. The quarantined inhabitants have no idea what is happening in other villages or how far the sickness has travelled or when it will end. Tensions rise as conditions deteriorate within the manor, with Eleanor in particular displaying her selfishness and disdain for others.
The story of the Black Death is powerfully told with wonderful descriptions of stricken villages, empty manors and abandoned farms. The rigid structure of feudal society is challenged by this devastating sickness as it becomes a catalyst for new possibilities and change on a wider stage than Lady Anne has already set in train at Develish Manor. But for these possibilities to be realised they will have to leave the manor. The newly appointed steward, Thaddeus Thurkell, a serf and a bastard, sets out with the sons of the leading serfs to find out what is happening in the rest of the county.
Walters has written a compelling, atmospheric tale of human suffering and tragedy which also captures the resilience and courage of people challenged to the utmost by an unknown sickness. In the process, she also provides a portrait of a part of medieval England in a period of great change and upheaval.
A second book in the series is due in 2018 and I can’t wait for it to be published.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 9
Released by: Allen & Unwin
Release Date: October 2017
RRP: $32.99 paperback