The Serpents of Harbledown

Written by Edward Marston
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

England, 1086. In the author’s fifth Domesday adventure, we follow Ralph Delchard, a Norman soldier, and Gervase Bret, a talented lawyer, who work for William the Conqueror sorting out various irregularities brought to light by the Domesday Book. Inevitably, they become embroiled in local sinister goings-on. The present problem concerns the Benedictine Priory of St Augustine, whose abbot has recently died, and rumour has it that Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury wants to install Abbot Guy, a move the forceful Prior Henry is determined to thwart. Ralph and Gervase arrive in the area with the ambitious Canon Hubert, who once knew Langfranc, and he is furious at being ignored. The locals, however, are more concerned by the disappearance and death of the much-loved 17-year-old Bertha, ostensibly from a snake bite on Harbledown hill where she was collecting herbs. But why was she lying under a holly bush? Gervase suspects murder. Then the saintly Brother Martin is poisoned. At this point, the priory versus cathedral story begins to resemble one of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, with various church factions at loggerheads. The deaths of Bertha and Brother Martin continue to spread alarm, with Ralph and Gervase floundering about.

What Marston is good at is creating sympathetic minor characters, like the teenage leper, Alain, whose sad story we learn only gradually, and we feel for him. However, I think the book would have benefited from losing some of the many monks; I kept muddling them up and had to go back and sort out who was who which, unfortunately, allowed the dramatic tension to drop. The actual villain, charismatic and dangerous, doesn’t appear until well into the second half of the book when, instantly, the tension rises. Ralph’s strand returns like a thunderbolt, and I read the last third at a gallop.