A Play of Heresy
Margaret Frazer

ISBN-13: 978-0425243473
Publisher: Penguin Group
Line: Berkley
Release Date: Dec 6, 2011
Pages: 304
Retail Price: 15.00

Genre: Mystery

In the early summer of 1438, Joliffe and his fellow players have arrived in Coventry for the theatrical and religious festival of Corpus Christi. Employed by several of the city's rich and powerful merchant guilds, they plan to present two of the many plays extravagantly depicting all of God's story with pomp and pageantry.

But even as his fellows prepare to perform the Nativity, Joliffe may be called on to play a wise man off the stage as well. When the merchant Master Kydwa goes missing and is presumed dead, aner agent of the cunning Bishop Beaufort calls on Joliffe's skills as a spy to uncover the mysteries of Coventry's elite. As suspicions spread, possibly implicating his own companions, Joliffe is drawn toward the devilish machinations of a secret sect of heretics bent on destroying the Church. The players may be about to present the Harrowing of Hell, but will Joliffe be able to unravel a confession of corruption before Coventry's dark enigmas unleash a medieval massacre of the innocents?

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The medieval town of Coventry is getting ready to host a series of plays to help celebrate the religious festival of Corpus Christi. Joliffe is one of the dramatic players, but in addition to his duties as an actor, he also serves as a spy for Bishop Beaufort of Winchester. Joliffe’s latest assignment is to discreetly gather information about a merchant, Master Kydwa, who recently left Coventry and is now missing. Sebastian, another spy, is convinced the Lollards, a group known for their outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church, is somehow involved. Some of the townspeople think Kydwa was killed by his servant, but Joliffe is trying to keep an open mind and find out what really happened to Master Kydwa before the plays are over and it’s time for the actors to move on.

A medieval mystery with possible religious and political motives sounds a bit daunting, but the author does a wonderful job making the book easy to read. The characters are relatable even though they are living in very different times than today. Frazer uses descriptive language that gives the reader a sense of being in another time and place without being hard to understand. The language is often lyrical and at times inspiring. Below is one example dealing with grief that is especially beautiful.

“When great sorrow came, it always seemed to shatter all the gladness there had been, but that was a false seeming. Somewhere in the heart and mind the gladness still was.”

I enjoy the backdrop of the plays and what goes into putting them on. Apparently it was customary for the professional actors to be joined by some of the people in the town and as you could imagine, that has varied levels of success. It is interesting to see Joliffe work with the men on their parts in the play and watch their progress as they improve. The mystery itself is interesting and Joliffe’s investigation and the characters he encounters in Coventry makes the book enjoyable to read.

The book is part of an ongoing series, but this is the first I have read. I had no trouble understanding the book or getting to know Joliffe without having read any of the prior installments. A little more background on some of his fellow actors would have been helpful, but they actually didn’t play a large role in the mystery, so the characters crucial to the plot were introduced for the first time in this book.

I wasn’t sure I would like the book or its medieval setting, but I was won over after reading a few chapters. Joliffe is an intelligent character who is determined to get to the truth of matters he is investigating. He is well-respected as an actor and his skill for helping others improve their performances and also improving the scenes within the plays. The author is very skillful in taking events from the 15th century and making them come alive to a modern reader. The ending was unexpected to me which made the book even better. I am so glad I gave this book a chance and I wouldn’t hesitate to read further installments.

Reviewed by Christine