In the stormy summer of 1483, the cathedral town of Condom in Gascony is an important centre for pilgrims walking the Compostela route. Belina Lansac usually works in the cathedral shop selling souvenirs, but her half-English husband, Guillaume, is obliged to travel to Bordeaux, and he delegates his task of investigating the suspicious death of a pilgrim to his wife. The mood in the town is brooding and angry, like the weather. The townspeople are squeezed for taxes by the crooked treasurer, Rocca, and rumours are strident about a possible English invasion. Gascony was, formerly, the territory of the English crown but is now part of France.
In England, the young princes, Edward and Richard, have been declared illegitimate and Richard III has taken the throne. Belina is anxious that her husband may be involving himself in English intrigues. She discovers that the murdered pilgrim was poisoned and had many gold and silver coins sewn into his clothes. Her efforts to unravel the mystery are complicated by the arrival in town of a handsome Fleming named Barvaux. He insists on helping Belina in her husband’s absence, making her anxious about gossip and her reputation. The plot thickens around the poisoned pilgrim as Belina discovers a connection to the English princes, presumed to be incarcerated, and perhaps murdered, in the Tower in distant London.
The detail of this medieval world is vividly drawn and envelops the reader. Belina questions the cooks in a busy household, and the reader can smell the aromas, and see the colourful ingredients, in that kitchen. There are a few moments in this debut novel where the story is a little overloaded with its researched detail or where the exposition is unwieldy, but these are minor quibbles in this hugely enjoyable and engrossing story.