Cathedral of Bones: An Ela of Salisbury Medieval Mystery (Ela of Salisbury Medieval Mysteries Book 1)

Written by J. G. Lewis
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

It is March 1226, and Ela Longespée’s husband, William, Earl of Salisbury, has died suddenly. His funeral has just taken place in the newly built Salisbury Cathedral when the new widow is brought news of the corpse of a young pregnant woman found in the River Avon. There is no water in her lungs, so it looks like murder.

In the teeth of opposition and incredulity, Ela assumes the role of Sheriff of Wiltshire (in historical fact the first woman to hold such a position anywhere in Britain), and her sleuthing is agreeably close to current police procedure: in the absence of photography, Ela’s own accurate drawing of the woman’s injuries, and a recreation of what the victim might have looked like in life, quickly identify her. As Ela investigates further, her suspicions about her husband’s death surface – and then one of the prime suspects is also murdered.

The attention to detail of Ela’s clothing means that the reader can almost feel her maidservant pinning on her head-covering. The historical context is thoroughly researched; Ela’s understanding of medicine derives from the School of Salerno. Yet though the author could hardly have reproduced actual speech of the time and still been comprehensible to most modern readers, terms like “go check” and “snuck” are a little too modern and too transatlantic, and sometimes I wished her characters didn’t lift an eyebrow quite so much.

That said, this is a satisfying and readable whodunit with a resolution I couldn’t predict. Lewis’s sympathetic heroine defends her corner and that of her children in what was most definitely a man’s world, in a story likely to appeal to readers of Cadfael. I am pleased that there are to be more Ela of Salisbury mysteries.