Danish Crime, Historical Mysteries

Oathbreaker by Martin Jensen

OathbreakerI had been keen to read Oathbreaker since enjoying the first novel in Martin Jensen’s Halfdan and Winston series,  The King’s Hounds, back in November. While it was not a perfect read, I loved the vivid historical setting, striking characterization and the little historical details Jensen incorporates throughout the novel that bring the past to life.

The King’s Hounds seemed to be driven with the external pressures on the two sleuths to solve the crime quickly and tidily. Here we see them given more time to solve a mystery but also placed in a situation where they are not able to use the threat of the King’s displeasure to force compliance from unwilling witnesses. This case requires them to utilize a different skill set and the story has a slightly different texture and tone as a result.

The book incorporates an interesting mix of elements, some of which feel quite fresh while others will be more familiar to readers of early medieval mysteries. We have a monastic setting, a bitter dispute between two groups of priests and a monk who appears to be hiding from a bloody past. What elevates these familiar period elements for me is the way they are used as a starting point to explore the political and religious conflicts of this period.

A somewhat insolent monk who has been sent to the church to reflect on his conduct is discovered dead in the middle of the night. His body has been arranged into the shape of the cross and his right hand has been severed from his body. When a representative of the Thane recognizes Winston and Halfdan from the events of the previous book, he requests their assistance in investigating the matter. In doing so the pair must navigate that bitter rivalry between the two monasteries, discover the dead priest’s true identity and work out how these events relate to the threat of a possible insurgency in Mercia.

While this case may appear to offer lower stakes for our sleuths than their previous one, I appreciated the interesting mix of suspects and I enjoyed learning about the historical background for the crime. For those interested in the events, Jensen includes several pages of historical notes citing his sources and giving more detail.

I was a little disappointed that the most interesting and entertaining character from the first book, King Cnut himself, does not feature directly in this novel though this was probably necessary to give our two sleuths space to establish themselves independently of him. Still, though we do not see him though we are still aware of his presence and I continue to find him an intriguing, ruthless and complex figure even from a distance.

One of the aspects of the first book that I didn’t care much for was Halfdan’s aggressive sexuality and I was pleased that this second book tones that down quite considerably. He remains a letch and we still have to read his assessments of female characters primarily through their looks but the second half of the book gives one of its female characters more to do than any of the women in the first title.

On a related note, Halfdan feels a much richer character here independent of Winston. We see him exercising more initiative in his investigations, coming up with some critical deductions at a key moment in the story drawing upon his own knowledge and background, and he clearly has a stronger sense of purpose than in the first novel. It is clear that he is more than just a Watson to Winston’s Holmes – he is a competent investigator in his own right. I did miss their interactions a little though.

Winston does not participate quite so visibly in the key moments of this investigation but he does have an entertaining if slight character arc of his own in the second half of the novel. There is one development in particular later in the novel that I felt promised an interesting change for the character and I am curious to see how that may affect him in the next novel in the series.

Overall I was more than satisfied with this second installment of the series and felt that the tweaks made to characterization and the shift of emphasis generally worked to the material’s benefit. Where the previous book was arguably a stronger historical novel than mystery, Oathkeeper is the more satisfying mystery.  I continue to find this setting fascinating and look forward to seeing what may be in store for Halfdan and Winston in the next volume at some point soon.

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Danish Crime, Historical Mysteries

The King’s Hounds by Martin Jensen

KingsHoundsThough I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about British history I must admit that the period between the Romans leaving and Edward the Confessor is a bit of a blank for me. Consider it one of those areas in history that I just hadn’t got around to learning about yet.

Martin Jensen’s novel, The King’s Hounds, has convinced me that I need to rectify that. The story is set in the early days of King Cnut’s rule as he awaits the receipt of his Danegeld and prepares to unite the whole of England under his rule. The politics of this period is complicated and yet Jensen explains it very clearly to those (like me), making the setting very accessible.

Halfdan, a dispossessed half-Saxon, half-Danish noble, encounters Winston, an illuminator, while on the road and the pair of them head to Oxford. The mood in the city is tense as Saxon and Danish representatives gather for a great meeting and local merchants are feeling resentful about the Danegeld, a tax being levied to pay off the Viking raiders. Before the meeting has even begun, the body of one of Cnut’s adversaries is discovered and his widow accuses Cnut of having him murdered.

When Cnut meets Halfdan and Winston he sees an opportunity to defuse the political tension and commissions them to investigate the murder. He hopes that because they have different backgrounds neither the Danes or the Saxons will feel that he has taken sides or sought a particular outcome. He does however set them a very clear target that they must have the case wrapped up in a matter of days or else they will risk losing his favor.

Structurally the novel opens with a short third person prologue introducing the character of Winston and then the remainder of the book is narrated by Halfdan. The selection of Halfdan is an interesting one and, based on comments I have read on Goodreads it seems to be a choice readers either love or hate.

I found myself wincing a few times at the character’s objectification of women which I think falls into the category of something that is absolutely credible and fitting for the period but which is likely to turn some readers off. Certainly his grasping and groping behavior really stood out when being read in a month where we have seen allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct from different media and political personalities splashed all over the news. In spite of this though I did feel that Halfdan was an intriguing character in other respects and, given he is less perceptive than Winston I understood why he would make a better narrator structurally. I will admit to liking Winston far more though and being more interested in his back story.

Turning to the mystery, I think Jensen has a solid concept that is elevated by the story’s setting. Cnut frequently interferes in the investigation, demanding updates on its progress and showing signs of frustration when Halfdan and Winston are unable to announce any significant developments. The approach is quite interview heavy but I enjoyed that Jensen makes getting the interviews half the struggle and when a solution is given I felt satisfied that it fit what had come before.

Where I felt that the story was most successful was when it touches on how the Saxon (and Danish) legal systems of the time differ from our own. To give an example, one factor that Halfdan and Winston have to consider is whether the person they will accuse of murder can afford to pay the wergeld, a sum of compensation, to the victim’s family. There are a number of intriguing details such as these woven quite naturally into the body of the text which give the book a strong sense of time and place. This also serves to give their investigation a slightly different texture from those usually found in historical mysteries.

On the other hand, I cannot say that this translation’s use of language always perfectly meshes with the setting though the blame for this may land with the original text. There are occasional phrases or words used that feel decidedly too modern for the period and which stood out a little awkwardly from the body of the story. It wasn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment of the story and I felt that most of the instances were intended to give a sense of a character’s tone and manner of expression but if this is the sort of thing that pulls you out of a story, be warned!

While Halfdan occasionally annoyed when on his own, I did enjoy the way he is paired with the more thoughtful Winston and way the latter would sometimes mock him. I particularly appreciated that the story makes it clear that they are learning just how to do an investigation which felt realistic. Their different styles complemented each other well, making them a solid pairing, and I was interested to see where Jensen took the pairing next.

Though I think some readers might not care for its narrator, I felt that the story worked well and was a good introduction to these characters and the world it recreates. Perhaps the best thing I can say about The King’s Hounds though is that it not only has a strong sense of place, it left me wanting to go and learn more about the period and the figures mentioned in the novel.