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The Butcher of St Peters is a novel set in 1325 by Michael Jecks, it is set in Exeter and tells the story of the murder of a constable of the peace who is stabbed whilst protecting his children. The book is part of the wider Knights Templar murder mystery series and features Sir Baldwin and Bailiff Simon Puttock, though in truth only Baldwin is really in this novel. Also featured as a semi-permanent member is the coroner Sir Charles, who here is the coroner of the city of Exeter and is in truth the chief investigator of the crimes.
The Butcher of St Peters is a strange novel in some ways because the story seems to jump around a little and can leave the reader confused at times. The basic core of the story is one of a man whose family died during a famine who has a compulsion to enter other people's houses at night and watch their children sleep. He has been entering the house of the local policeman who doesn't want him to intrude on his home, one night he finds the man and in a struggle the policeman is stabbed and killed. It appears that the man who enters houses is responsible for the crime but the case is of course much more complicated.
The book starts with a simple and apparent straightforward murder and starts to spin out until the reader starts to lose connection with the original case. The story is expanded very rapidly to encompass, the wife's sister, her unpleasant husband, and his business partner.
The books real outline isn't so much to explore the murder of a policeman in the 1320's but to explore the use of prostitution in those times, the murder is a convenient excuse to hang a story around a bit of social criticism of people living 700 years ago. So we are told in explicit details about the actions, activities, greed and vice surrounding the cities brothels, the author particularly enjoys calling the brothels stews and is clearly on a bit of a crusade to expose the real truth over medieval England's attitude to sex and prostitution.
Does it work as a book? Well yes and no, the story is ok but the main villain is a bit of cartoon cut out a medieval villain. The crux of the novel is that one of the cities established and respectable businessman who on the side owns several of the cities brothels, he is married and his wife is the sister of the wife of the murdered man. The investigation into the murders soon expands to include his family and he is introduced to the story as a central character but from the beginning he is a completely over the top nasty bigoted character that you wonder how he became a respected businessman in the first place. His language, actions and general presence in the novels is of the worst type and you start to doubt even in the 14th century if such an unpleasant man wouldn't be avoided at all costs. All the women in the book who are either married or prostitutes are saints and the author struggles to differentiate between the two, constantly making the point that medieval marriage was a type of prostitution as the women lost all rights after marriage.
The book still works as there are a few twists and turns involving the initial murder and follow up murders, there are plenty of grisly events to get the reader engaged with and at the very end there is a nice twist revealing the murderer. After reading the novel I have come to the conclusion that Michael Jecks has improved as the books have come out, this is the 11th in the series and now we are on to the 25th or 26th and the latter books work better than the early ones. I think the author is compelled to examine the living state of the 14th century peasant, knights, and lords through the murders he writes about but as the novels progress we start to enter the time of Edward II usurpation and the books have more grist to work upon. So this is a decent book but not the best in the series.