The Last Hours

Written by Minette Walters
Review by Sarah Bower

June 1348: When Lady Anne of Develish loses her husband to the Black Death, she takes charge of his demesne and does everything in her power to keep her 200 bonded serfs safe from this new and terrifying plague. Together with her newly appointed steward, Thaddeus Thurkell, the mysterious bastard son of one of her serfs, she quarantines the estate, and emotions run high as the beleaguered population tackles starvation, pestilence and rampant sexual jealousy.

I am a longstanding fan of Walters and came to this, her first novel in ten years, with great anticipation. Alas, I have been disappointed. Walters’ focus is not so much on the Black Death but on the way in which it transformed and ultimately destroyed feudal society. Lady Anne is a visionary figure with an understanding of hygiene and democracy which foreshadows the Age of Enlightenment far too plausibly and makes her battle against the plague a bit of a damp squib. Thaddeus clearly has an interesting back story, but we never get to find out what it is because the novel ends ‘to be continued…’, yet there is nothing in the marketing materials to suggest this is the beginning of a series. Lady Anne’s daughter, Eleanor, is a joyfully monstrous villain and convincingly done, but is really the only character I had any time for.

The novel is also far too long. It sags badly in the middle when Thaddeus and a group of boys from the demesne go foraging beyond the village. While Walters’ thesis is an interesting one, her themes are too often repeated with the result the book feels didactic and heavy-handed. Not, alas, one I can recommend.