Jim Reviews: The Bookseller’s Tale – Ann Swinfen

I have to say I can’t actually remember how I stumbled on this book. I may have been trolling the internet for historical fiction and found it that way. At any rate I ended up with this rather esoteric work of historical fiction that I loved. Sadly we don’t have a copy of The Bookseller’s Tale but I am working on fixing that. In the mean time we’d be happy to interlibrary loan a copy for you.

The story is set in 14th century Oxford just after a major outbreak of the plague. The widower Nicholas Elyot, a bookseller, discovers the body of student William Farringdon stabbed to death, floating in a river. Elyot and his friend Jordain set out to solve the mystery which takes them deep into the world of books and the Colleges at Oxford that collect them.

What makes this story rather quirky and enjoyable is that much of the writing has very little to do with the mystery. The mystery is there and it is compelling and interesting but what really carries the story is the world. Another name for book could have been “lets wander around 14th century Oxford and see what’s happening.” Much of the book is just seeing how people lived in a medieval university town with a particular focus on the book industry. How parchment is made, where you get goose quills for pens from, how a book is bound, who writes them or copies them, how you do you get the colleges to pay their bills. There is also the everyday affects that a pandemic has on society. Houses standing empty, rising crime and lax law enforcement. All of it is the sea that the mystery floats along in. Its so captivating I almost wonder if you really needed the mystery.

The thing that really makes me happy though is this is only the first book in a series that focuses on Elyot!