Plague, Labor, and a Mystery

The Butcher Bird: A Somershill Manor Mystery, by S. D. Sykes, (Pegasus), 336 pages, release date 4 April, 2016

Set in the Kentish countryside and London immediately following the plague epidemic of the late 1340s, The Butcher Bird offers a compelling mix of mystery and historical imagining. Oswald de Lacy, not quite twenty and a third son, had never been particularly important in the de Lacy family At seven years old, he was sent to a monastery to prepare for an eventual life as a monk. But the deaths of his two older brothers during the plague forced him out of the monastery and into a rather unwelcome role as Lord of the manor. Religious training did little to prepare Oswald either as a landowner or as a leader of the families renting lands on the family estate.

In the post-plague years, the feudal structure of English society is beginning to crumble. With nearly half the work force wiped out, surviving laborers find themselves able to demand higher salaries. While law requires that they be paid at pre-plague rates, they are increasingly questioning the structures that had shaped their lives, choosing to leave areas their families had inhabited for generations in order to seek better pay and opportunities in cities or on other manors with more generous Lords.

Oswald’s hands are full trying to balance the competing demands of the laborers on his estate and the local nobility, who are determined not to grant any increased pay or new opportunities to those who work their lands. But once the body of an infant is found impaled on a thorn bush (just as shrikes, “butcher birds,” store their pray for later eating), Oswald’s challenges increase. While Oswald is determined to find a rational explanation for this crime, the local families quickly embrace tales of a gigantic bird brought to life by a madman who has been an unsettling presence since his wife and children were killed in the plague.

The puzzle is sufficiently complex to keep the narrative moving forward, but in many ways the chief delight of this book is the opportunity to imagine the daily lives of those living at this time. This is S. D Sykes’ second Somershill Manor mystery, and like the first it is carefully researched and engagingly presented. In addition to the tensions between folk beliefs and rationalism, the world of medicine is fracturing, with some practitioners beginning to question humor-based medicine and trying new, simpler cures, focusing more on cleanliness than on exotic ingredients like badger dung.

One can only hope that Sykes will be offering more titles in the Somershill series and that she’ll lead us on through the Fourteenth Century and the swiftly changing life of that time.

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