Saturday, 25 July 2015

Guest blog: Andrea Japp - 'The Lady Agnes Mystery, Vol. 1'

1304.The Church and the French Crown are locked in a power struggle. In the Normandy countryside, monks on a secret mission are brutally murdered and a poisoner is at large at Clairets Abbey. Young noblewoman Agnès de Souarcy fights to retain her independence but must face the Inquisition, unaware that she is the focus of an ancient quest.

Praise for Andrea Japp:
'Captivating characters … and vivid descriptions' Le Figaro
'Enthralling, page after page' Encre Noir

The Author:

Andrea Japp is one of the grandes dames of French crime writing with over thirty novels published. She is a forensic scientist by profession and weaves this knowledge into her books, giving them particular authenticity.

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Excerpt (from Part One - The Season of the Beast):

Manoir de Souarcy-en-Perche, Winter 1294.

Agnès de Souarcy stood before the hearth in her chamber
calmly contemplating the last dying embers. During the
past weeks both man and beast had been beset by a deadly cold
that seemed intent on putting an end to all living things. So many
had already succumbed that there was barely enough wood to
make coffins, and those left alive preferred to use what little there
was to warm themselves. The people shivered with cold, their
insides ravaged by straw-alcohol, their hunger only briefy kept
at bay with pellets of suet and sawdust or the last slices of famine
bread made from straw, clay, bark or acorn flour. They crowded
into the rooms they shared with the animals, lying down beside
them and curling up beneath their thick, steamy breath.

Agnès had given her serfs permission to hunt on her land
for seventeen days, or until the next new moon, on condition
they distribute half the game they killed among the rest of the
community, beginning with widows, expectant mothers, the
young and the elderly. A quarter of what remained would go
to her and the members of her household and the rest to the
hunter and his family. Two men had already #outed Agnès de
Souarcy’s orders, and at her behest the bailiffs had given them a
public beating in the village square. Everybody had praised the
lady’s leniency, but some expressed private disapproval; surely
the perpetrators of such a heinous crime deserved execution or
the excision of hands or noses – the customary sentences for
poaching. Game was their last chance of survival.

Souarcy-en-Perche had buried a third of its peasants in a
communal grave, hastily dug at a distance from the hamlet for
fear that an epidemic of cholera might infect those wraiths still
walking. They had been sprinkled with quicklime like animal
carcasses or plague victims.

In the icy chapel next to the manor house the survivors prayed
day and night for an improbable miracle, blaming their ill luck on
the recent death of their master, Hugues, Seigneur de Souarcy,
who had been gored by an injured stag the previous autumn,
leaving Agnès widowed, and no male offspring to inherit his title
and estate.

They had prayed to heaven until one evening a woman collapsed,
knocking over the altar she had been clinging to, and taking with
her the ornamental hanging. Dead. Finished off by hunger, fever
and cold. Since that day the chapel had remained empty.
Agnès studied the cinders in the grate. The charred wood
was coated in places with a silvery film. That was all, no red
glow that would have enabled her to postpone any longer the
ultimatum she had given herself that morning. It was the last of
the wood, the last night. She sighed impatiently at the self-pity
she felt. Agnès de Souarcy had turned sixteen three days before,
on Christmas Day.

It was strange how afraid she had been to visit the mad old
crone; so much so that she had all but slapped her lady’s maid,
Sybille, in an attempt to oblige the girl to go with her. The hovel
that served as a lair for this evil spirit reeked of rancid mutton fat.
Agnès had reeled at the stench of filth and perspiration emanating
from the soothsayer’s rags as she approached to snatch the basket
of meagre offerings: a loaf of bread, a bottle of fresh cider, a scrap
of bacon and a boiling fowl.

‘What use is this to me, pretty one?’ the woman had hissed.

‘Why, the humblest peasant could offer me more. It’s silver I
want, or jewels – you must surely have some of those. Or why not
that handsome fur-lined cloak of yours?’ she added, reaching out
to touch the long cape lined with otter skin, Agnès’s protection.

The young girl had fought against her impulse to draw back,
and had held the gaze of this creature they said was a formidable

She had been so afraid up until the woman had reached out and
touched her, scrutinised her. A look of spiteful glee had #ashed
across the soothsayer’s face, and she had spat out her words like

Hugues de Souarcy would have no posthumous heir. Nothing
could save her now.

Agnès had stood motionless, incredulous. Incredulous because
the terror that had gripped her those past months had suddenly
faded into the distance. There was nothing more to do, nothing
more to say.

And then, as the young girl pulled the fur-lined hood up
over her head, preparing to leave the hovel, something curious

The soothsayer’s mouth froze in a grimace and she turned
away, crying out:

‘Leave here! Leave here at once, and take your basket with
you. I want nothing of yours. Be off with you, I say!’

The evil crone’s triumphant hatred had been replaced by a
bizarre panic which Agnès was at a loss to understand. She had
tried reasoning with her:

‘I have walked a long way, witch, and …’

The woman had wailed like a fury, lifting her apron up over
her bonnet to hide her eyes.

‘Be off with you, you have no business here. Out of my sight!
Out of my hut! And don’t come back, don’t ever come back, do
you hear?’

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