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“Walters creates a sense of claustrophobia and fear which is compelling” – Margaret von Klemperer reviews The Last Hours

Published in The Witness, 12/02/2018

The Last Hours

Minette Walters
Allen & Unwin

Minette Walters, better known as an author of psychological crime novels, has moved into new territory here – back to the 14th Century and the arrival of the Black Death in southern England.

The results, the loss of around half the country’s population and with that, a mortal blow to the old feudal system of serfdom, are well documented historically and form an important backdrop to what is planned to be a two novel saga.

In the manor of Develish, the brutal Sir Richard of Develish is planning to ride to a neighbouring estate to arrange a marriage for his deeply unpleasant 14 year old daughter, Eleanor. He leaves his wife Lady Anne in charge, and while he is away, news of the rapidly spreading plague arrives.

As the bodies mount up, Lady Anne bars the estate to all comers, including her dying and unlamented husband and his entourage. Only when the survivors are out of quarantine (she has considerable medical knowledge, considering her era) does she let them return. But besides the plague stalking the countryside there are other dangers: starvation and marauding bands of dispossessed and chancers.

Walters creates a sense of claustrophobia and fear which is compelling – her work as a writer of psychological drama standing her in good stead here. She also draws a hierarchical and patriarchal society, ruled by an often corrupt church.

Tensions rise within the barricaded estate as serfs begin to realise there will be advantages for them once they can sell their labour. Their loyalty to their mistress keeps things on a more or less even keel – she has protected them against her horrible husband, and, maybe a trifle anachronistically, taught many of them to read and write.

Once a group of lads, led by the bastard Thaddeus, heads out to see what is happening beyond their boundary and to look for desperately needed food, the story divides into two parts, and loses a little of its tension. But it still rollicks along, and should delight fans of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and the like.

My main criticism would be that the goodies are so good and the baddies so bad that there is little room for nuance. But Walters produces a suitably cliffhanging ending so that there will be plenty of readers keen to find out the further fortunes of Lady Anne and Thaddeus, and even nasty little Eleanor. - Margaret von Klemperer

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