Book Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

The Last Hours by Minette WaltersCrime fiction writer Minette Walters has branched out into the realms of historical fiction with her new novel The Last Hours. Set in the summer of 1348, it provides a fascinating glimpse into what life was like for the ordinary folk of Dorset when faced with the horror of the Black Death. Lady Anne of Develish decides to quarantine the demesne, bringing her serfs inside the walls to keep them safe from contamination. But the people soon become restless, as fear of starvation begins to counteract the fear of disease.  

Walters has portrayed the harsh realities of life as a bonded serf in Medieval England, ruled by their Norman master (Lord Richard) and ignorant of life outside the boundaries of their village. But Lady Anne is different. Her early years in a Monastery provided her with medical knowledge and literacy skills, which she is determined to pass on to the serfs in her care, despite her husband’s bullish ways and his delight in humiliating and abusing those beneath him.

Their daughter (Lady Eleanor) takes after her father. She despises those who serve her, and takes every opportunity of asserting her authority over them. She takes delight in baiting one serf in particular – Thaddeus Thurkell, the bastard son of Will Thurkell, who dreams of travelling beyond Develish and has a soft spot for Lady Anne, for showing him kindness and teaching him to read and write.

As the plot develops, and Lord Richard succumbs to the Black Death, tensions build, as those within the walls begin to realise just how precarious their situation has become. With no news from the outside world and little in the way of protection, they are extremely vulnerable. Thaddeus Thurkell is promoted to the role of steward, whilst the previous steward (Hugh de Cortesmaine) is determined to win the allegiance of anyone who might help him, and Lady Eleanor begins to act strangely, becoming more and more frustrated at her plight. When a boy is found dead, stabbed in the middle of the night, Thaddeus and Lady Anne must make some difficult decisions, in an attempt to maintain order.

Although Minette Walters is a bone fide crime fiction writer, the crime in this novel is subtle, merely playing its part in a much wider story. It is a thrilling read, with plenty of suspense, as there is constant fear and uncertainty right up to the very end. But I particularly enjoyed the humorous aspects of the novel, as we follow Thaddeus Thurkell leading a party of five argumentative teenage boys on a mission to find food and to discover what has happened in the surrounding neighbourhood. This part of the story shows the reality of their ignorance, as they have no idea even of the roads and settlements in close proximity to Develish.

It also paints an eerie apocalyptic scene, as they come across entire villages wiped out by the Black Death, where dogs and rats feast on the remains:

“At one hundred paces, the sweet, sickly smell of corruption that blew from Athelhelm village was powerful… Thaddeus estimated the village had once housed upwards of four hundred field serfs, but the only evidence of them now was in the all-pervading stench of death…”

As Thaddeus and his companions explore further afield, Lady Anne must wait patiently, praying for their safe return. It soon becomes clear that the world has changed beyond all recognition, bringing not only uncertainty and fear but also opportunity for those brave enough to take it.

Frustratingly, we leave the characters in a state of indecision as the novel draws to a close, but there is a sequel, The Turn of Midnight, due to be published in October.

The Last Hours will be published on 7th June.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.