Couched in the myriad superstitions of Medieval England, including whatever fantasies local priests spread to keep frightened peasants in line, Sykes devises a mystery--the murder of two young village girls--that pits Oswald de Lacy against priest John of Cornwall.
The quasi-atheistic de Lacy searches for logical clues to the first girl’s death, while Cornwall suggests the cynical work of the devil in the form of a bog-headed beast. In 1349, such outrageous things are deemed possible, the rural village far removed from feudal authority.
The new lord of Summershill Manor, Oswald de Lacy--both young and inexperienced--attempts to assume a role for which he is ill-prepared.
Without discrimination of wealth or poverty, the Plague has decimated the country, including the abbot of the Dominican monastery where Oswald has expected to take Holy Orders and spend his life in service to the Church. Instead, Oswald’s older brothers and father have perished as well, leaving the young man the new head of the family by default. Returning home with his mentor Father Peter to his often-addled mother and dour, unmarried sister, Clemence, Oswald finds himself overwhelmed by the weight of his new responsibilities.
He is unable to restrain the ravings of John of Cornwall, who would challenge his authority, or block his mother’s constant interference as he attends to estate business. The peasants are easily led by Cornwall, slavishly believing that an agent of the devil is ravishing innocents.
They pray for deliverance from the dog-headed beast as they clutch the saints’ bones sold by Cornwall in their hands.
The throat of the murdered girl, Alison Starvecrow, was cut, not chewed, a fact not lost on Oswald as Cornwall raves of demons. Visiting Alison’s only living relative not killed by the plague, Oswald finds her sister Matilda uncommunicative, mumbling nonsense he cannot decipher.
When Matilda disappears, it occurs to de Lacy that the savage beast has not chosen victims randomly, a fact that suggests a human murderer is at fault. Making his case to the panicked peasants who have willingly followed Cornwall to another’s land and left Summershill fields fallow, Oswald is hampered by his youth, either when facing off with Cornwall or, for that matter, his sister Clemence, who has decided to marry a neighboring widower in spite disturbing stories about his treatment of former wives. With only Father Peter, the alcoholic infirmist, to turn to for advice, de Lacy is frequently left impotent, his impulsive actions not only failing to locate the killer but inadvertently putting a target on his own back.
At a time when superstition proves more powerful than the logical explanation of the crimes--by now both sisters are dead--the more Oswald delves into the business of those around him, the more he learns of family secrets, political intrigue and the weakness of his position faced with powerful opponents. In illustrating Oswald’s difficulties, his own tendency to procrastinate and the obstacles deliberately erected by others, Sykes paints a portrait of a young man undermined at every turn by those with bad intentions and personal agendas. Confronted with both a plot to kill him and blame him for the murders, an unexpected rescue from certain death by a stranger plants a seed of courage in a weak young man’s heart, his spirit finally engaged to combat an unforgivable outrage committed by his enemies.
In spite of the novel's historical color and bevy of eccentric characters, Sykes fails to balance a plot weighed down by innumerable defeats. Oswald’s attempts at an investigation
are met with deliberate obfuscation, duplicity and betrayal: “A trail of bad fortune has wound itself around me.” Indeed, his misfortune is relentless, the likelihood of such a character, even armed with truth and outrage, would survive the bullies and monsters that trample this medieval landscape. If Oswald de Lacy survives, it is only a fluke. Surrounded by those married to self-interest, this David’s battle against his Goliaths grows tiresome, even exhausting.