Monday, December 20, 2010

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: A Play of Piety by Margaret Frazer

I couldn’t sit back and wait for someone to give me A Play of Piety for Christmas. I had to buy this new release from Margaret Frazer for myself. Then I bumped it to the top of my reading list. I couldn’t help it. I’m addicted to the "A Joliffe the Player Mystery" series. I highly recommend that you start with the first book in this series, A Play of Isaac, and read on through to this one.

It’s harvest time in 1436. Joliffe, at one-time a simple actor and now a spy for the powerful Bishop Beaufort, has been allowed to rejoin his company of traveling players until his services are required again. While glad to be back among comfortable old friends, he is not so happy to discover their situation. They’ve landed in a village with a fine charity hospital--badly in need of its services. The troupe’s leader, Thomas Basset, Joliffe’s acting mentor and close friend, suffered a severe attack of "the arthritics." These left him bedridden, thereby immobilizing the players. The healthy members of the troupe were commanded to aid with the harvest. Rose, Basset’s daughter, became a hospital cook. Here they wait, until Basset improves enough to move on. If he improves.

Picking up the job of jack-of-all-trades about the hospital, Joliffe settles in to wait also. He has some mulling over to do, and some healing himself, given the spy training he has been undergoing. He’s suffering nightmares and, if not quite regrets, at least questions about the way his life is heading. Faced with the possibility that the company might not be able to return to its former way of doing things, he sees how much he will miss the life, and wonders why (by attaching himself to Bishop Beaufort) he is risking losing something that suits him so well. "He did not know. Except that had wanted not only the life he had been living but more. Not other, and not instead, but more."

Joliffe’s yearning for that ill-defined more is always palpable in the "Player Mystery" books. It is, no doubt, what provided the wanderlust and the capacity to constantly transform himself that drove him to become a player in the first place. It’s evident in the intellectual curiosity that entangled him in the detective work that brought him to the bishop’s attention. And now it embroils him in figuring out the murders taking place here.

There are visitors at the hospital, the gluttonous Mistress Thorncoffyn and her haughty grandson Geoffrey. As heirs to the hospital’s benefactor, they are entitled to some privileges, but not as many as they demand. As unpleasant as they make themselves, it would not be surprising if someone were to wish them gone. But would someone go so far as to murder Mistress Thorncoffyn? When suspicious deaths begin, Joliffe goes to work gathering clues once again.

A Play of Piety is a fascinating character study rather than an adventure-packed thriller. Joliffe’s insight into human nature is matched by the perceptiveness of many the same people he is studying. It’s always the interactions among the characters I love so much. With this book, Frazer goes back to her roots in some respects, putting the political/historical aspects of Joliffe’s journey on hold while he reacquaints himself with the other players. It’s a fairly standard mystery from a plot standpoint. But the richness in these books is watching the development of this mystery man turned player turned detective turned spy as he tries to hold onto the part of his life that he holds most dear– but that unfortunately was not quite enough.

Now the question is: how long do I have to wait for the next book?