Set at the turn of the fourteenth century, The Lady Agnès Mysteryit tells the tale of Agnès de Souarcy, a young, beautiful widow, who lives in Normandy with her daughter, Mathilde, and her adoptive son, Clément.
A young Hospitaller knight, Francesco de Leone, is embroiled in a secret plot that would see the fall of the Church. He is on a perilous journey to find the woman who plagues his dreams.
Meanwhile, in the nearby Abbey of Clairets, where the Bernadine nuns hold secrets that could shake the world, sisters are being murdered by one of their own.
The three stories converge amid the backdrop of murder, heresy, the Inquisition and a power struggle between the French Crown and the Papacy.
Agnès is the the bastard daughter of a minor lord, Robert de Larnay, and a servant. Out of remorse for his transgression, Robert takes Agnès into his household where she is raised as his daughter, alongside his son, Edues de Larnay. His wife, Baroness Clémence, treats Agnès as a daughter in spite of her being the result of her husband’s affair and the two form a strong bond. Out of remorse, Robert legitimizes Agnès and marries her off to a kindly older lord, Hugues de Souarcy at age thirteen. They have one child, Mathilde, a haughty, vain eleven year old who is obsessed with little else but rising in the ranks of the nobility. Hugues dies and leaves twenty-five year old Agnès the raining land he didn’t squander as her dower, but its s only enough money to run the household, which is little more than a glorified farm.
Agnès decides to remain unmarried and avoid the “assistance” offered by her incestuous, half-brother, Eudes, a violent brute who is infatuated with her and will do whatever it takes to make her his or destroy her. Agnès is intelligent and sees through his thinly veiled attempts to get her into his bed. Now, that her daughter Mathilde is nearly of age, Agnes will do anything to prevent her brother from doing to Mathilde what he did to Agnès when they were children.
Clément is the son of Agnès’ former maid servant, Sybille, a Cathar heretic who took her own life after she was raped , rather than bring child into the world who was a reminder of her sin. Mathilde and Clément couldn’t be further apart from one another; Clément is shy, intelligent, and kind.
Unfortunately, Agnes is caught in a series of complicated political events and murders, that implicate her as a heretic and see her fall into the clutches of the Inquisition.
Hospitaller, Francesco de Leone, a deeply pious knight, undertakes a dangerous quest to save the Church, and Agnès, from the clutches of an evil Inquisitor, Nicholas Florin. Francesco is aware of the plot to ensnare the Knights Templar, and bring about their downfall. He tries to prevent his order from meeting the same fate.
It’s nice to read a novel that isn’t traditionally set in England. England seems to be the default “go-to” destination for most historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. The story focuses on a fascinating point in medieval French history, centering on the period of the murder of Pope Benoît IX (Nicholas Boccasini – 1240-1304), the political turmoil between the Papacy and King Philip I “the Fair” of France (1268-1314) the burgeoning plot to get rid of the Knights Templar. Throw in a lot of poisoning, torture and the Inquisition, and you have a dark, intriguing, novel.
French author, Andrea Japp, who has translated the work of popular American crime writer, Patricia Cornwell, has done an excellent job of weaving together historical events, superstition, and mystery. Even where she catches herself succumbing to anachronisms, she duly points out her errors, and it doesn’t detract from the story. She’s provided the reader with an extensive appendix that explains the period, and the key players.
What makes the book all the more interesting is that Japp is a toxicologist. The toxicology angle figures heavily in the plot because many of the murders occur due to poison. Japp shines here because she’s able to go into extensive detail and add an interesting layer to the story.
Japp has also created captivating, strong and memorable characters. Agnès is a formidable woman; she is clever, independent, and intelligent. She is not a weak and simpering heroine waiting to be saved; she goes head to head with her accusers and the insidious Inquisitor, Nicolas Florin.
Nicolas Florin is a fantastically evil character and based on the real life Dominican, Robert le Bougre, “Robert the Small”, a notorious Inquisitor from the thirteenth century known as the “Hammer of the Heretics”. Le Bougre had a penchant for extreme violence and enjoyed inflicting torture on his victims. His zeal for killing heretics became an embarrassment to the Church and he was dismissed in 1236. Through Florin, Japp provides an in depth glimpse into the French Inquisitorial procedure and ample detail about the development, rise and abuses of the Inquisitors.
In Clairets Abbey, Japp gets to show off her toxicological background with the apothecary super sleuth character of Annette, who must find out who is murdering her fellow sisters and how this all relates back to Agnès.
By far, however, my favourite character has to be Clément, the bright young boy taken in by Agnès. His cleverness, and unwavering loyalty to Agnès make him her greatest ally and protector, helping her best Florin at his own game. Without giving anything away, Clément has the most interesting storyline of all the characters – a real plot twist that I didn’t see coming.
Japp has written a intricate, dark, and riveting tale; an compelling book that I found difficult to put down. I look forward to reading the next volume as this book clearly ends in a lurch – it drops off, making you want to read more. It’s kind of like what happens when a great moment in a show suddenly goes into a commercial and you’re left with the “To be continued” at the bottom of your screen. This book leaves you at that exact moment, with much left unresolved, wanting to know how it all ends. In spite of the abrupt ending, the novel is enjoyable and highly recommended for any medieval mystery fan.