The Good Death by SD Sykes – Review
By Sandra Callard
If you love history, if you love a murder/mystery book or if you just love an unusual and rollicking good yarn, this new book is for you.
“The Good Death” by S D Sykes is set in England in the Middle Ages of the 1300s when younger sons of wealthy families did not have much of a role in the family and were frequently packed off to join a monastery. Oswald de Lacy had two elder brothers so this was his fate and he became Brother Oswald.
This unusual and fascinating tale is told by Oswald with all the accompanying customs and speech of the time, but it is just as easy to accept and follow as is a modern day whodunnit. The characters, the terrain and the 14th century beliefs and ideologies are accepted by the reader through the easy and gentle way the author brings the story to life. The further back you delve into history, the more brutal the lives of ordinary people appear to be, and this book shows, but does not dwell on, that aspect.
The story here is that a number of very poor young girls from a certain village in England have been going missing, never to be seen again. Young Oswald has an encounter with one such girl, which ends in a terrible disaster, but which fires his determination to find out what is happening to the missing girls.
He is a Brother, a novice monk – and a very young one. He has not yet taken his vows and to him this endeavour is so much more important, even though his fellow Brothers do not agree. He begins his quest, and this book travels with Oswald on his journey and the circumstances, the good, the bad and the frankly horrific, grip the reader with just as much force as a modern day detective novel aims to do.
An inventive quirk in the story is that it very cleverly and easily covers two separate times in the history of Oswald’s life. Oswald is the narrator of both, one of which starts in 1349 and the other over 20 years later in 1370. This would normally annoy and confuse the reader, myself included, but it is to the author’s credit that this is done so smoothly and cleanly that the reader easily adapts to the varying time lines.
The earlier time is devoted mainly to Oswald’s time with his mother, who is dying, but stubbornly lingers on, and the importance to her that she has “a good death” with every possible thing done that will ease her way through Purgatory to the gates of heaven. The later time is quite surprising in that it relates to what happened to Oswald after his quest for the killer has taken place.
One thing I particularly noticed, as a woman, was the author’s descriptions of the clothing 14th century people wore, and the vast differences between those of the poor with their tawdry garments, and the beautiful and rare materials and clothing of the wealthy. We know there was a huge chasm between the two classes, and the writing of the author illuminated this and gave a revealing glimpse of the people of a long-ago century.
My only gripe was that I quite easily guessed the culprit, but only because there was a dearth of other reasonable or possible subjects. This, however, in no way lessened my enjoyment of a pleasant and interesting story which flows with a unique and effortless ease.
‘The Good Death’ by SD Sykes is published by Hodder & Stoughton, out 5th August