Although I very much enjoyed this book, I can identify immediately one possible reason why it's never become a huge hit: as someone just now enteringAlthough I very much enjoyed this book, I can identify immediately one possible reason why it's never become a huge hit: as someone just now entering their fifth year of university education on the very subjects (medieval history and literature) dealt with in this book, I suspect that I'm better prepared to be flung headlong into the fourteenth century without much preamble than many readers coming to this novel. (I don't know for sure, of course, since my perception of what non-medievalists know about the period has been skewed by half a decade of total saturation in the field, but that was certainly my impression.) Morgan doesn't waste time explaining the wider context in which the story takes place, which is a shame in a way, since the book has obviously been very well researched, and the whole plot is kick-started by a crisis point in the Hundred Years War with which I suspect not many people are deeply familiar. The story clocks in at a mere 341 pages - and there are a lot of blank pages indicating chapter breaks within that - which immediately suggests that the emphasis will not be so much on the politics of the era as on "Geoffrey Chaucer solves a murder", in the style of numerous historical domain figures like Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who have been appropriated by modern detective fiction over the past few years. However, I was surprised to discover that the history is given greater precedence than the mystery here - the advertised murder doesn't take place until a little past the novel's halfway point, and its solution is repeatedly overshadowed by a mounting political intrigue which - SPOILER - turns out to have only the most tangential connection to the crime; and the unmasking of the killer, while satisfying, is far from being the book's climactic scene, and is dealt with almost by-the-bye once everything else is winding down. Think John le Carré meets Brother Cadfael meets Wolf Hall meets Agatha Christie, all compressed down to three hundred and fifty pages. Hugely enjoyable and, yes, a well rounded story which draws in all the plot elements introduced earlier, and is well aware of the one thread it leaves (deliberately) dangling; but unable to get to grips with any of its many complementary themes in anything like the detail they merit or deserve.
The use of Geoffrey Chaucer as the novel's main character and nominal detective is handled quite well, and it's easy to appreciate how tricky this must have been for the author. As a historical figure primarily known through his writings - particularly his final work, The Canterbury Tales - and whose biography is fairly complete for his time but nevertheless extremely sketchy by modern standards, it would have been easy for Morgan's Chaucer to descend into caricature, taking the bawdy comedy displayed in those Tales which seem currently to be the most popular as evidence for a man whose character was defined by an enjoyment of scatological and sexual humour. Morgan, however, is aware of Chaucer's wider biography and uses it to add a great deal of nuance to his character: in 1370-71 Chaucer was still actively engaged in diplomatic work in France and Italy, the poetry he was producing at the time was far more serious in tone than his later works (it's mentioned at one point that he recently wrote The Book of the Duchess, one of his first major works, a touching elegy for his patron's first wife), and to this Morgan adds the realistic detail that Chaucer is, at this stage of his life, more concerned with the welfare of his young family than with the acquisition of fame, whether through his diplomatic work or his writing. Little else is revealed about Chaucer's personality through his dialogue and actions, but in a way this is one of the novel's greater strengths: it allows the reader to use a familiar historical figure as a touchstone in a quite possibly unfamiliar world, supplying detail from their own knowledge about his background and temperament, allowing him to lead the way without attempting to impose a particular interpretation upon him which might distract a reader who held different pre-conceived views or expectations of him as a character. Any English civil servant of the period - whether real or invented - might have taken Chaucer's place as the hero of the novel, at the expense of a few pleasing episodes in which Chaucer witnesses or hears something which is obviously going to influence his writing of The Canterbury Tales several years down the line (his young assistants' bed-hopping adventure in the inn at Canterbury in the first few chapters, for example, is explicitly linked to his writing of The Reeve's Tale) - but I think it is the benefit of a figure familiar to the reader which, more than anything else, makes Chaucer's place in this book so important.
(And a note to my fellow Chaucerian nerds out there: The House of Fame is more or less the only major work of Chaucer's which doesn't receive a shout-out at some point during the novel, nor is its relevance to the plot obvious. But this is a minor nit-pick.)
I have given this book 3 stars instead of 4 because, despite my great enjoyment of it while I was reading it, I don't expect it will stay with me for very long. It impressed me enough that I checked the second and third books in the series out of my local library, and I look forward to reading them, but its main impact has been to make me want to re-read some Chaucer rather than jump headlong into the remainder of Morgan's trilogy, which I'm content to let sit on my shelves for a while before starting on them. Perhaps this is partly because, despite the plain and uncomplicated (yet distinctly better than average) prose and the well-drawn characters, I was never entirely drawn into the fictional world of the novel; it remained words on a page for the most part, which I think may have been intentional - a meta-fictional homage to the way formal technique took precedent over realistic world-building in the literature of Chaucer's time? - but still potentially a bit dry in places, especially when you sit down expecting a straightforward historical murder mystery. Overall, however, it's a very easy read - I got through it in three days' worth of breakfast and lunchtime sittings - and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in medieval history as well as murder mystery....more