Justice for the Damned by Priscilla Royal

Priscilla Royal’s fourth book, Justice for the Damned, is another fine example of historical mystery writing.  She continues to develop increasingly better plots and stronger characters.

Publishers Weekly describes the book as follows:

Prioress Eleanor of Tyndal is recuperating from a life-threatening illness at the start of Royal’s riveting fourth medieval mystery (after 2006’s Sorrow Without End), but she brightens at an assignment from her aunt Beatrice, director of novices at Amesbury Priory, who asks her to investigate a ghost people claim has begun haunting Amesbury. When a local man is found beheaded, Eleanor realizes she’s dealing with a human killer, not an otherworldly spirit. Meanwhile, a thief may be trying to steal a valuable illuminated manuscript from the priory. In a fascinating subplot, a handsome young monk, Thomas, hunts down the manuscript thief. Though committed to celibacy, 22-year-old Eleanor develops quite a crush on Thomas, who struggles with homosexual longings. The author subtly treats the erotic charge surrounding Eleanor and Thomas while shedding light on 13th-century understandings of sexuality. Royal draws together the murder, the manuscript and the ghost in an unexpected conclusion.

Not only does Royal describe the sexual mores of this time period, but she also does an excellent job of describing the monastic life in Medieval England.  Although monks and nuns were called to a life of serving God, many of them could not keep the world from influencing them.  Amesbury Priory has had problems in the past with monks going over the Priory wall to drink and whore.  Royal captures the reactions of the townspeople to these slips in morals.

In addition, Royal describes in the story how the power of the Church was much greater then.  For example, the Church was given investigative and police powers not only on Church grounds, but also in the realm of the supernatural.  Thus, Eleanor and Thomas were given authority to look into the mystery of ghost sightings around the Amesbury Priory.

As Royal describes, life was not easy and often short.  As in this book, many people lost loved ones when they were relatively young.  Disease and the harsh living conditions took many to an early grave.   Royal also highlights the marital conditions of the time – women were considered to be the property of their husbands who had every right to beat their wives.  One of the women in the book – although beaten by her husband – continued to support her husband’s wishes even after he had died.  Royal captures this sad state of affairs perfectly.

Finally, Royal’s plots continue to get more interesting with each book.  She throws in unexpected twists and turns – such as the murder of a monk halfway through the book.  She keeps you guessing about who the murderer is until the very end.  In addition, she always adds unknown reasons for why the killer does what he or she does.

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