Murder at Whitby Abbey (An Abbess of Meaux Mystery)

Written by Cassandra Clark
Review by Loyd Uglow

When Hildegard, a nun in the little Yorkshire priory of Swyne, receives orders from the prioress to fetch a holy relic from a distant monastery, it seems like an uncomfortable but routine assignment – uncomfortable because it is Christmastime 1389, and snow blankets the long route to Whitby Abbey. The discomfort is part of Hildegard’s required penance for a passionate encounter with a handsome knight. Her superiors, however, send three faithful monks as escort to protect the penitent.

Whitby Abbey proves to be less an oasis of holiness than a microcosm of the world, with its share of the good, bad, and hypocritical. Death strikes and then strikes again as Hildegard and her companions focus on solving crime as much as procuring the relic. The machinations of the monastery are woven into the larger picture of English politics, as greater prizes are at stake for the contending factions for and against the king. On a personal level, Hildegard’s investigation into the Whitby deaths makes powerful enemies, and her beauty triggers dangers of a different sort.

Author Cassandra Clark has humanized the world of the monastery while portraying the true devotion that many of its inhabitants demonstrated. She offers a reassuring view of monastic culture in which the majority actually live in unfeigned faith despite the insincerity of some. We see little depth in Hildegard’s character for the first two-thirds of the novel, however, until she finally changes from primarily an observer to one personally invested in resolution of the mystery. The novel would be improved by more development of her character early on. All in all, though, it is as enjoyable as a crackling fire in a snowed-in monastery.