Nicholas Elyot is the official bookseller to the University in the city of Oxford. He is riding along the Cherwell when he discovers a body floating in the water and pulls it to the shore. He is shocked to discover that it belongs to William, a promising student who he had employed several years before for a short period.
While many assume that William had committed suicide, Nicholas comes to believe that the boy was murdered and sets out to prove this. In this task he has the help of his friend Jordain, a scholar, though it is initially hard for them to understand why someone would seek to kill him.
The reason for this killing that Swinfen comes up with makes a lot of sense and is exceptionally well clued. Explanations are clear and easy to follow and I am happy to say that this is absolutely a fair play mystery.
Because the novel’s logic is so sound however, I suspect that many readers will spend much of the book well ahead of the sleuths as they bungle around trying to piece together what is happening. There really is not much in the way of misdirection given in the story and so once you get the gist of what has happened it is easy to work much of the rest out from that core of ideas.
While the mystery elements are not wholly successful, there is still much to enjoy in this novel however. The most interesting parts of the book for me were not the mystery itself but rather the details of Nicholas’ life and, particularly, his profession. It was interesting to hear about the way stories were collected, books were devised and physically bound and I enjoyed his professional frustrations in dealing with college bursars who were slow to pay their invoices.
I also really appreciated Swinfen’s characterizations, both of her leads and supporting players. I liked Nicholas a lot and found him easy to empathize with, even when I think he is making bad or reckless choices. I particularly appreciated that Swinfen finds a really solid reason for him to risk himself and become involved in the first place. He not only feels a sense of affection for the young man he knows but there is the very real risk that if he cannot disprove that it was suicide then William will not be allowed to be buried in consecrated ground.
I also enjoyed the group of characters Swinfen surrounds her hero with, particularly his very practical sister, his friend Jordain and his two journeymen scriveners. There were some strong personalities among that group and I hope that the stories that follow explore them further.
While I think that The Bookseller’s Tale does not quite succeed in mystifying its readers, I still had a very enjoyable time reading it and do plan on following on with the next installment at some point soon.