I cannot remember when I last read a novel by Minette Walters although her psychological crime thrillers occupy a considerable section of my bookshelf. As soon as I read the blurb for The Last Hours, I was fascinated. What could Walters do with a historical drama based on the Black Death of 14th century England? I wasn’t disappointed. The Last Hours tells the story of the Develish demesne in Devon in 1348 when infectious illness spread rapidly and threatened to wipe out the 200 bonded serfs, servants and family. What did take me by surprise is that The Last Hours is only the first instalment of the story, so there is the unexpected anticipation of the next book now to enjoy.
The first character we meet, pre-infection, is Eleanor. The only daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Anne of Develish, she watches preparations for the departure of her father and his retinue as they travel to meet the neighbouring lord to whose son Eleanor is promised. Eleanor seems at once fascinated by and repelled by a serf, Thaddeus Thurkell, who she distains for his illegitimacy. As a first chapter it sets up the relationships and future action in such a detailed way, I found myself re-reading it for clues. Because, though this is a historical novel, never forget it is written by Walters, author of The Scold’s Bridle and The Ice House.
Mystery, deceit, betrayal, lies and gruesome horror are a part of the story of how Lady Anne marshalls the population of Develish, family, stewards, servants and serfs alike, to survive when infection threatens to engulf them. Thaddeus is a key character, educated, tough and inspiring, he becomes a key figure when Sir Richard’s party returns from its visit to the neighbouring Bradmayne estate. Facing disease, Lady Anne must decide how to save the lives of the majority. Her knowledge of basic medical practices and herbal remedies, gleaned for her girlhood in a nunnery, enable her to reorganise Develish for survival. Walters does not lighten her descriptions of the Black Death; its symptoms, the corpses and infection are explicitly described but not in a sensationalist way, instead they add tension to the plot. Can this group of people possibly survive when whole Devonshire villages are dead and packs of wild dogs roam the countryside? How can you protect yourself from infection when the source of the disease is unknown and there is no help from outside?
The storyline is handled with expert timing. Just at the point where I wondered where the next threat would come from, Walters splits the storyline in two. After a suspicious death of a teenage boy, Thaddeus takes a group of five youths across the moat to explore the surrounding countryside to assess the threat from bandits and disease, and search for food. Meanwhile Eleanor’s behaviour is becoming more extreme, her hatred for her mother and the serfs make daily life difficult for all in such a confined space. Indulged by her father, Eleanor has grown to be a selfish, arrogant, ungrateful young woman who believes in her own superiority and expects special treatment even in such abnormal times. As well as a historical study of the disease, The Last Hours also examines the social changes of the time, as serfs become educated and, encouraged by Lady Anne, consider a life independent of the feudal system.
I can’t wait for the next instalment of the Develish story.
‘The Last Hours’ by Minette Walters, #1 BlackDeath [UK: Allen & Unwin/ US: Atlantic Books]
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