First in the Oxford Medieval Mysteries series, The Bookseller’s Tale follows the adventures of Nicholas Elyot, the titular Bookseller, as he investigates a mysterious death in Oxford, 1353. Elyot discovers a young university man dead in the River Cherwell, and quickly comes to understand the young man did not die a natural death. As Nicholas and friend Jordain look into the death, they discover a plot involving a priceless Irish psalter, blackmail, an artistic nun, and greedy aristocrats.
Swinfen includes A LOT of geographical description here, which I found off-putting. I read the e-book version, so am wondering if a map of old Oxford is included in the print edition, which would make the description less tedious and confusing. Beyond that minor annoyance, I found an entertaining story full of colorful, well-drawn characters. Nicholas Elyot and his household – sister Margaret, children Alysoun and Rafe, and puppy Rowan – are nicely detailed and their backstory told succinctly and with sensitivity. (Nicholas and the rest of Oxford are recovering from the plague years where so many died, including Nicholas’ wife and Margaret’s family.) Nicholas’ bookshop provides a wonderful backdrop to the story, and Swinfen is not stingy in including fascinating tidbits of information about the early (pre-printing press) days of book-making. I especially liked the scene with the parchment maker.
The plot itself meanders a bit, but is eventually all tied up nicely. I finished the book wanting more, and will definitely move on to The Novice’s Tale, where the enigmatic Sr. Benedicta plays a larger role.
Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those by Ellis Peters.