Margaret Frazer, A Play of Piety

Posted February 13, 2012 by Kathy Davie in

A Play of Piety (Joliffe, #6)A Play of Piety by Margaret Frazer
Series: Joliffe the Player, 6
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sixth in the Joliffe the Player medieval mystery series revolving around a group of theatrical players in 15th century England.

My Take
I am so pleased to be wrong! In the last Joliffe story, A Play of Treachery, I was positive that Joliffe would still be actively working for the bishop. I was wrong. Joliffe is back with the players!

This story is primarily with Basset, Joliffe, and Rose with the others playing brief roles.

Interesting historical background on how much the movement of non-nobles is restricted. Joliffe mentions that he has a note from Lord Lovell as why he wasn’t hauled in to work at someone’s harvest.

There could be worse places to be. The hospital insists upon cleanliness and the food is decent. The sisters themselves are intelligent with wit and humor about them and they truly care about their patients. The only fly in the ointment is Mistress Thorncoffyn, but it’s great fun reading of the many ways in which everyone else thwarts her or simply makes fun of her.

I’m not sure why Frazer made such a point of the shed where Jack sees “unsavory” goings-on. She doesn’t go anywhere with it.

This was a truly fun story and I enjoyed this very much. The only criticism I would make is that the characters made things too easy for Joliffe to play at his detecting. She could have created more tension with more suspicion of Geoffrey as well; he had it too easy.

The Story
Joliffe is thrilled to be back on the road and heading back to his fellow players in Barton. The past months have been disturbing in too many ways and Joliffe is looking forward to returning to a player’s life. Surely it’s been an interesting peek behind-the-scenes working for the bishop as a spy, but it has also been and continues to be disturbing as Joliffe notes how he has changed in his outlook and reactions to others after his training. Worse, Basset is laid up in St. Giles Hospital and the bishop’s man had no information on how badly he was doing.

It’s bad enough but the troupe was lucky enough that they were near St. Giles when Basset was stricken. Rose is working in the kitchens of the hospital while Ellis, Gil, Piers, and Tisbe are working in the fields helping to bring in the harvest. If Joliffe is to stay he will have to choose between working the fields or staying in the hospital to “lift, shift, fetch, and carry” for Ivo has run off. Naturally, there’s no real choice as Joliffe would prefer the easier life as servant at the hospital than the better-paying but back-breaking work of the fields. It certainly helps that it will irritate Ellis no end!

It’s a good life if you don’t mind staying in the same place. And if you could get rid of Mistress Thorncoffyn and Master Hewstere with his condescending ways and obsession with the stars—the patients certainly prefer the concoctions of Sisters Margaret and Letice as they actually work. The antagonism between Thorncoffyn-Idany, Master Hewstere, and the sisters is actually a lot of fun since the sisters are quite diplomatic and nice in how they play the game of surviving their nastiness. It does help that Master Soule and Father Richard are on their side!

Then Mistress Thorncoffyn’s grandson and her steward arrive. Pleasant enough until the two men who work for Mistress Thorncoffyn arrive to lay complaint against Master Aylton. It doesn’t take much before Mistress Thorncoffyn is laying into Aylton, beating him badly enough to require a physician’s assistance. It’s the discovery of his death in the morning that disrupts everything in the hospital with Joliffe’s position as servant a definite hindrance in his detecting.

No, it’s not the sisters who hinder as they are anxious for Joliffe to hang about with the crowner so he can tell them the news. It’s simply not expected for a servant to interfere with such an investigation. And, again, Joliffe is lucky with those who do investigate even if his interest does cause suspicion.

It is a worry as even if Bassett gets better, the sickness will recur and decisions will have to be made.

The Characters
Master Thomas Basset is the leader of a group of six theatrical players. They became quite lucky when Lord Lovell decided to make them his own Players for his cachet protects the troupe when they wander the countryside. Basset decides which towns to play, who is to play which part, and directs them until the play is perfected. His daughter Rose doesn’t act but she does manage their money, the props and costumes, and keeps them fed. Her son Piers is young enough to play the feminine and children’s roles with Gil‘s help. Ellis also acts and loves Rose. Joliffe “Norreys” acts and writes the plays they perform. Due to his innate curiosity, Joliffe also pokes his nose in and solves crimes which is how he came to Bishop Beaufort’s attention.

The nursing sisters at St. Giles include Sister Margaret who has a talent for healing; Sister Ursula is the huswife for the hospital; Sister Letice cares for the garden and is knowledgable about herbs and their medicinal uses; Sister Petronilla cares for the the children Daveth and her own son Heinrich (he sounds like he’s autistic); Emme and Amice are the laundresses; Master Soule is master of the hospital, teaches in the school, and trades off religious duties with Father Richard the parish priest; Master Hewstere is the physician who can’t bear to touch his patients; and, the crippled, very intelligent Jack takes care of the gate.

The patients at St. Giles include Basset of course, but there’s also Deke Cready, Ned Knowles, Tom Lyttle, and Dick Leek who are not expected to last much longer; Adam Morys broke his leg; Iankyn Tanner suffers from asthma; and, John Oxyn has a cotidian fever whatever that is!

Mistress Cisily Thorncoffyn is cross, contrary, and delights in being a pain—her five dogs are smarter and better behaved! Annually she takes advantage of a clause in the gifting of the hospital by her father to stay for weeks at St. Giles—I think she likes to spread the grief around. Even when she’s ill, she’s thinking of how to make people miserable. Her maid Idany is a carbon copy at least in character bossing everyone around and expecting them to drop whatever they are doing to cater to her mistress. Master Geoffrey Thorncoffyn is her grandson and certainly takes after her in character. Master Aylton is the Thorncoffyn’s steward and a seemingly pleasant enough man. Dick Cawdry is reeve at Tybchurch while Simond Wyke is reeve over at Crofte for Mistress Thorncoffyn; their statements are backed up by Harry Multon, a bailiff.

John Borton is the bailiff at Barton with Deke Credy’s nephew a constable. Tom Denton is the barber-surgeon who performs the autopsy. Master Osbourne is the crowner who investigates any death and makes a judgment; a very suspicious and intelligent man. Master Goldin is the town apothecary Osbourne calls in when Sister Letice confirms that the ginger is poisoned; possible romance there!

The Cover
The cover illustration is by Brigid Collins while its design is by Lesley Worrell. I hadn’t thought to wonder who had done them previously, but I’m impressed by the atmosphere the cover creates with its medieval styling. The hospital is in the background behind an arch with a cloudy barrier between it and the row of bedridden patients, sisters clustering behind the nasty Mistress Thorncoffyn (she’s really not fat enough on the cover!) and her maid Idany.

The title is disturbing. The sisters and the priests are pious enough…it’s the others who seem to be A Play at Piety.

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