The Death Ship of Dartmouth by Michael Jecks

Hawley was rich, as demonstrated by his crimson velvet cote-hardie, and the softness of his linen beneath. If salt had marred his hosen, they were still made of good thick wool, and his shoes were of the best Cordovan leather. It made Simon feel tatty in his old robe from last year. Since the death of the abbot, he had not felt it was right to ask for the annual replacement that was the perquisite of his position….

The portly Master Philip Kena, clad in a thick fur-trimmed cotte with a hood that had an extravagant liripipe and gorget in bright blue, was a close competitor to Master Hawley.#

commentary: The pictures above with their helpful captions are from the NYPL, importantly called English Period Costumes Collection, Viewed as a Book. They are, as the shape gives away, from cigarette cards of the early 20th century, but that is not to say they are not accurate… And the man, particularly, definitely belongs in this book, where characters are forever attacking, wielding knives and other weapons, jumping out at other people. Many a section ends with the person concerned sinking into unconsciousness. It is quite, quite splendid.

In June, in one of the highlights of my year, I attended the Detection Club Summer Dinner at the Garrick Club. Michael Jecks was one of the delightful people I met, and he very kindly sent me a couple of his book afterwards. (You can see a photo of him in the earlier blogpost.) He has featured on the blog before, in a post on Boy Bishops:
The whole idea of boy Bishops is of course fascinating: who could not wish to know more about them? Historical information is thin on the ground – there is a helpful webpage here - but there are a number of books featuring them. One of Phil Rickman’s wonderful Merrily Watkins series, the enjoyably terrifying Midwinter of the Spirit, features an attempt to revive the custom at Hereford Cathedral, and contains more information about the practice, and Michael Jecks’ Mediaeval Mystery crime series has a book called The Boy Bishop’s Glovemaker. It’s the only one I have read by him – I couldn’t resist that title. It was very enjoyable.
And this book turns out to be in the same series as the Boy Bishop book.

The books have series characters: Bailiff Simon and Sir Baldwin, the Keeper of the King’s Peace, but it isn’t necessary to have read earlier books – the reader can gather there is a lot of backstory, but Jecks has obviously gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that they can work as standalones, while offering continuing details to ongoing readers.

The books are plainly very well-researched and full of fascinating historical detail – particularly of the way legal proceedings operated, with many unexpected byways. But – that difficult balance – he never pushes his research into your face. It is beautifully done.

The plot is unbelievably complex, and I stopped trying to work out what had really happened to the boat found empty, and burning, with a dead body in it: just as well, I never would have guessed. I decided just to enjoy the driving narrative, and it really is very very good.

There is a hilarious larger-than-life coroner, Sir Richard, making Bailiff Simon’s life a misery: they drink too much together, he is too loud, but a very appealing character (made to be played by Brian Blessed in any adaptation.) The setting is specific – the town of Dartmouth in Devon (close to the Agatha Christie house of blessed memory) but the plotlines are wide-ranging, there are a lot of people wandering round the place being chased, attacked, questioned and visiting the inn: from the lower class poor people up to the highest echelons. there are various bodies, identified and unidentified, and missing people, and an important hole in the road (I loved the gang of pavers). But the author quite clearly has every element of the plot clearly in his mind, nothing slips, and the details of life are fascinating. And the book is full of very funny scenes and moments.

Part of the plot is based on a real-life historical incident in the lives of the royal family of the time: Queen Isabella (married to Edward II) and her family – this is the Scandal of the Silk Purses, which on first glance you would assume was invented. But it is not. Jecks writes very interestingly in an introduction to the book, explaining why the internet isn’t that helpful with historical research. I also commend a fascinating interview he did with the Puzzle Doctor on the In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel blog, which explains more about his admirable working ways.

Edward II and the story of his life, and times, and descendants, makes for fascinating reading, and is a magnet for creatives. Last year I went to see an opera based on his story: Lessons in Love and Violence by George Benjamin. And also last year I was in a haze of reading 14th century history, with Anya Seton’s always sublime Katherine, and Susan Howatch’s Wheel of Fortune – which takes the story of the benighted Plantaganet families and retells it in 20th century Wales. (And if that sounds terrible, let me tell you it was one of the best books I read in 2018, and deserves to be much better known…. I try to explain why in two blogposts. )

With thanks to Michael Jecks for the books… I will certainly be reading more by him.

Above is Isabella’s family in 1315 
l-r: Isabella’s brothers, Charles IV of France and Philip V, Isabella herself, her father Philip IV, her brother Louis X and her uncle, Charles of Valois

Isabella has one of the best Royal nicknames: she is known as the She Wolf of France.


  1. Very glad you enjoyed this, Moira. I haven't met Jecks in person, but we had some pleasant Twitter exchanges. I do respect an author who does the research well, but who doesn't make a story sound more like a history textbook. And the story itself does sound interesting. I like the fact that there's wit woven in there, too. Nice to discover a new author to like, isn't it?

    1. Yes, I am looking forward to reading more by him. And he does very well at that difficult balance in historical fiction: it sounds convincing while not pushing his research at you.

  2. Glad you enjoyed this Moira and have found yourself a new author to journey with.

    1. I know! Lots of books for me to follow up on...

  3. I have the first book in this series and as yet have not read it. I will have to give it a try. The Boy Bishop’s Glovemaker also sounds very good (set at Christmas?).

    1. I think you would enjoy this series Tracy, and Michael Jecks was lovely. And yes, the Boy Bishop one is set at Christmas 1321.


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