The first time I attended a Historical Novel Society North American Conference (the inaugural conference in the US!), this little gem, A Play of Isaac, was one of the books in my goodie bag. When I read the back cover...
The year is 1434, and preparations are underway for the Corpus Christi festival in Oxford, England. Plays are a traditional part of the celebration, and Joliffe and the rest of his troupe are to perform Isaac and Abraham. Until then, their theatrical antics are in demand by a wealthy merchant—Master Pentenay—who offers them an opportunity to ply their trade for room and board.
But when the body of a murdered man is found outside the barn door where the troupe is lodging, Joliffe must raise the curtain on Pentenay’s mysterious past—and uncover the startling truth behind the murder..."
...my first reaction was "meh." I tossed it back into the bag.
In general, I like my historical fiction straight up, not diluted with mystery. (Lindsey Davis’s Falco series is an exception to that rule.) I do read genre historical romance sometimes, but I have to be in the mood. I wasn’t really looking for a murder mystery. I expected the usual gruesome violence, some bloody corpses, maybe a child mutilation or two to try to convince me it was a can’t-put-down-thriller. Bleh.
But it was a nice light paperback to take on the plane home. I can’t go as far as to say it changed my life; however, it did turn me into a stalker. The book was not what I expected. Intricately plotted, as befits a murder mystery, the real charm of the book was its character development. This troupe of players cares deeply about each other and Frazer shows it in little ways, unveiling their individual personalities to delight me over and over again. The star of the show was, of course, the reluctant detective Joliffe. An intriguing mystery himself. I confess I developed a bit of a crush. After this book, I read the next in the series, and then systematically worked my way through Frazer’s Dame Frevisse books stalking Joliffe. I’ve pounced on every "A Play of..." book as soon as it has come out. And I have the next pre-ordered.
Frazer blends an appreciation for historical (political) context into these stories so that the mysteries become increasingly entangled with what is going on in the greater world. There is a wonderful interplay between the early Joliffe in these books and the man you see later in the Dame Frevisse books. While each "A Play of..." mystery can stand alone, the overall storyline really works better if you start from the beginning and watch Joliffe’s progress.