Sunday, December 28, 2014

A look at Kate Sedley's The Christmas Wassail

Although December 25th has come and gone, Kate Sedley’s The Christmas Wassail still made for a timely read after the holidays.  It’s set in and around Bristol, England, opening on the day before Christmas Eve in the year 1483 and wrapping up after Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.

All of the religious observations and traditional folk customs held over the twelve days of Christmas are included, which creates a rich cultural atmosphere. On Christmas Day, Roger the Chapman, his wife, and their blended family of four children attend three separate masses. There’s much merriment and drinking of “lamb’s wool” as people travel from house to house during their wassailing, and a group of mummers has come to town to perform.

Amid all the activity, including his investigation of a growing number of murders (since this is a mystery, after all), Roger is charged with finding a suitably large Yule log and keeping it burning for nearly a fortnight.

The crime aspect is introduced through the stabbing death of a city alderman who was a good friend of the wealthy Sir George Marvell, an ornery old man with a healthy libido and a multitude of family problems. Roger finds the victim right before he dies and hears his puzzling last word.

To the dismay of his wife, Adela, Roger has the habit of getting drawn into solving murders, both in Bristol itself and on his many peddling excursions around the countryside. It’s the second marriage for both of them, and their loving but sometimes acrimonious banter is fun to watch. Strong-willed, efficient Adela runs a tight household, or would, if Roger wasn’t away so much, meeting with friends in his favorite tavern or following wherever his curiosity leads him. Roger’s past service on behalf of the Duke of Gloucester, now Richard III, has helped his family rise in the world, so she can’t resent his work too much.

Although The Christmas Wassail is the 22nd (!) volume in the Roger the Chapman series, I didn’t feel disoriented. Enough backstory is provided so that the characters’ relationships are clear. The occasional reference to specific events from earlier volumes flew over my head, but that wasn’t a big deal. There’s enough detail on late medieval life to satisfy historical fiction readers, even those who don’t seek out mysteries. The book was published last year, and so far it marks Roger’s last appearance in fiction, which makes me wonder if there will be any others.  Kate Sedley (a pseudonym) also wrote many novels set in the Middle Ages as Brenda Honeyman and Brenda Clarke, her maiden and married names.

The Christmas Wassail appeared from Severn House in 2013 ($29.95 hb, $9.99 ebook).  I read it from a library copy, and wrote this review on my trip back to Illinois after spending Christmas in Orlando with my in-laws.  Hope you're all having a nice holiday season!


  1. Sounds like fun. There are a LOT of historical crime novels around. It's hard to sift through them. Not surprised if this one is the last, if it's during the time of Richard III. Less than two years later, Roger the Chapman would be likely to be suffering the consequences of serving his king, when that slime ball Henry VII took over and I imagine the author doesn't want to go there.

    1. That's entirely possible she may not want to write about that part of Roger's life. Although it isn't made very clear in this novel (I read it elsewhere), the idea is that Roger's writing these chronicles when he's in his 70s, looking back on his youthful adventures. So he did survive Henry Tudor on the throne, but that can't have been a very comfortable part of his life, if whatever assistance he provided to Richard III was known in high circles.

      The other thing is that the author is in her late 80s herself. I hope she's still writing.

  2. Ah, well that's another matter. I remember reading the last Brother Cadfael novel and thinking at the time that though Ellis Peters COULD write more about Cadfael, it felt like a last book. And the author, who was in her nineties, died soon after, leaving twenty BC novels and a lot more under that name and her straight historicals, as Edith Pargeter. She must have felt time going and thought "just in case..."

    1. I remember when Edith Pargeter passed away, since I'd been a member of the Historical Mystery Appreciation Society at the time (which had used to be the Ellis Peters Appreciation Society). Hers was a great series. The Sedley concludes with Roger heading out on another adventure, so while it doesn't feel like a last book, she could have deliberately written it with an open ending - which would be in keeping with Roger's usual nature.