Roberta Gellis





A MORTAL BANE, Forge, 1999
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Mystery, London 1139

Some books are just destructive of discipline. I had planned to reread A MORTAL BANE, review it, and follow it with a review of the sequel, A PERSONAL DEVIL. Instead, when I finished A MORTAL BANE, it was necessary to go right on and read A PERSONAL DEVIL. So here we are with a combined review.

In A MORTAL BANE we meet Magdalene la B‚tarde, mistress of a whorehouse next to a church. This location has advantages and disadvantages. It means she has the protection of her landlord Bishop Henry of Winchester, brother of King Stephen, who considers that Magdalene and her women provide a necessary service in a civilized way. It also means that when a man is found stabbed on the front porch of the church, she and her women are accused of murder on the grounds that they are sinners anyway. She hurries to the Bishop for help. The murder of a messenger from the Pope is of immediate interest to Bishop Henry, especially since he very much wants what the messenger was carrying. So do a lot of other people. Bishop Henry assigns his knightly strong man Sir Bellamy to ferret out the murderer and the Popeís dispatches.

Sir Bellamyís investigation starts with Magdalene and her women, because the messenger had stopped at their house before going on to the church. These are very unusual women, especially suited to a house where discretion and luxury are particular features. Each woman is beautiful, but one is blind, one mute, and one retarded. The servant is deaf. This makes a most intriguing gathering, for Sir Bellamy and for the reader, but what makes it especially enjoyable to read about is the warmth of family among them. Magdalene protects and cares for them all and values each oneís special qualities, and they all defend each other.

Magdalene has another protector in her occasional lover William of Ypres, mercenary leader and advisor to the king. Sir Bellamy, attracted to Magdalene himself, finds this connection intolerable, and the ramifications of their trio are worked out in quite an interesting way. Distracted and misled, Sir Bellamy isnít as adaptable as he might have been without Magdalene in the picture. But eventually virtue triumphs in some places and doesnít triumph in others, just as it ought, and the first book ends as happily as the reader could expect.

Luckily, A PERSONAL DEVIL is available in stores, so those caught up in the teasing momentum of the final page of A MORTAL BANE can keep right on with the charactersí next adventure. In A PERSONAL DEVIL one of Magdaleneís women, the blind Sabina, has left the business to become the mistress of Master Mainard, a leather craftsman. Mainard has a horrendous wife, a sadistic harridan, whose death would have been a happy occasion for all if it hadnít left so many people under suspicion of murder. Mainard, of course, is the main suspect, so Sabina calls on Magdalene for help. Magdalene calls on Sir Bellamy.

Bellamy has begun living in Magdaleneís house as a sort of top-level bodyguard, in a high state of virtuous frustration. Magdalene will not accept him on his own terms. In spite of this, the two are determined to sort out who had the means and opportunity to kill Mainardís wife, among the many, many people who had motives. Their detecting styles are quite different, and their competition can be both entertaining and grim as Bellamy amusingly takes for granted his innate male superiority and Magdalene remembers the dangers of being subject to the male rights of her dead husband. If they find the killer it will make the course of true love run smooth for at least one couple.

Throughout these two books there is also a running mystery to which we do not yet have a final solution. It comes down to this: Whatís a nice girl like Magdalene doing in a place like this? She was once the lady of a manor. Each of the books gives clues to the tragedy of her early life and how it effects her now. Personally Iím not sure if I want a book dedicated to this mystery. Author Roberta Gellisís flashback methods, especially in A PERSONAL DEVIL, are working quite well for me.

Roberta Gellis has long had a special knack for conveying the feel of relationships. Her characters interact believably and with sound psychological underpinnings. In A MORTAL BANE, her entry into the mystery genre, she does not give us the high emotional color that her large body of romance readers have come to expect. A romance tone would not be appropriate, of course. However, she may have gone a little too far in the other direction, refusing to use emotion triggers that would have supported a readerís emotional involvement in the story. On my first reading of A MORTAL BANE, I felt the tone of the book was a bit flat. I was not used to picking up the more subtle shadings suitable to her new purpose. On the second reading, I found it hard to believe I had missed the heartwarming closeness of Magdaleneís household. On the other hand, in A PERSONAL DEVIL the emotional colorings have crept back into the story, and even a couple of sensual passages faintly reminiscent of her romance books.

Roberta Gellisís twelfth century romance novels have been the admiration of her readers for decades for the extent of her research, and the despair of her publishers for the same reason. She has masters degrees in medieval literature and in biochemistry. She made fashionable the feisty heroine now so prevalent in romance writing, the way Anne McCaffrey did for science fiction. When intelligent historical romance lost its last charms for her publishers, she switched at about age 70 from romance to other fields. In just the last few years she has published the two historical mysteries of this review, two fantasies based on the ancient Greek gods, and a comedic science fiction ebook called OVERSTARS MAIL. The sequel to A PERSONAL DEVIL is BONE OF CONTENTION.

Oct 2001 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site


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