December 1192. Twenty-year-old Justin de Quincy, unacknowledged bastard son of a bishop, is on the road to London in search of gainful employment when he interrupts a violent robbery in progress. The robbers flee, scared off by the approach of the mounted, armed de Quincy. He stops to help the man they attacked rather than pursue the robbers. The dying man, a goldsmith, begs de Quincy to deliver to the queen the letter he is carrying.
The queen is the Dowager Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, widow of England’s Henry II and mother of King Richard the Lionheart. She is a very worried mother, because King Richard has disappeared on his way back to England from the Crusades. There has been no news of him for three months, and his brother John, Count of Mortain and later King John, is spreading rumours that Richard is dead. The political situation in England is precarious, and ripe for a coup.
The letter that de Quincy delivers, with the help of a pretty widow among the queen’s attendants, brings important news: King Richard is alive, but held captive by his enemy the Holy Roman Emperor, who may or may not be willing to ransom him.
The queen, pleased with what she sees in de Quincy, gives him an assignment to find out who killed the goldsmith, and why. Was the attack simple robbery? Or was it part of a plot to sabotage the king’s safe return to England?
This is the beginning of The Queen’s Man by Sharon Kay Penman. De Quincy makes enemies and friends as he settles into life in London, nosing into both palace intrigues and the criminal underworld. His quest for justice puts him in danger and draws him further into the queen’s confidence. Too principled and honest to be a good spy, he serves her well as a private investigator.
The Queen’s Man is the first of four historical mysteries featuring Justin de Quincy. They are lighter weight than the author’s better known but longer historical novels about English monarchs and Welsh princes. (Those have been sitting on my bookshelves for years, waiting for some future day when I could manage the sustained attention span.) Penman started writing the Justin de Quincy mysteries to give herself a break from the larger historical novels, but apparently her publisher discouraged her from writing any more of them. (Dang.) They aren’t heavy on historical detail, but her understanding of the politics and personalities of the major players is evident. (Justin de Quincy and the letter he delivers are fictional; King Richard’s captivity and John’s scheming are real.)
The plotting of the mysteries is adequate but not outstanding, and de Quincy doesn’t develop much of a personality in the first book. That improves as the series progresses. The second book, Cruel as the Grave, has a bit of a cozy mystery feel, with most of the action taking place in London, where de Quincy solves a murder involving his new friends and neighbours.
The action goes further afield, though, in the third and fourth books, with the queen sending him to northwest England and Wales in Dragon’s Lair (my favourite of the four books in the series) to investigate the theft of a portion of the ransom she is collecting to free King Richard. In the fourth book, Prince of Darkness, she sends him to France, where he has to collaborate with his personal nemesis—a spy for the queen named Durand—to clear Prince John of a charge of attempted murder.
The tantalising glimpses into the characters of real historical figures are what intrigued me the most about this series. Her Prince John is a ruthless, conniving scoundrel with a chip on his shoulder and a sense of humour that almost—almost!—redeems him. Makes him seem like a real person, anyway. Llewelyn the Great, the outlaw Welsh prince in Dragon’s Lair, also comes to life, as an intelligent, principled man with a better grasp of the nature of leadership and the responsibilities of government than the uncle he is in conflict with.
Some day I will read Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy. The first book, Here Be Dragons, about the marriage of Llewelyn and Joanna, Prince John’s illegitimate daughter, is only 800 pages. Retirement beckons…
 The Queen’s Man is only 300 pages, and the other three mysteries are similar lengths. The non-mysteries are much longer. The Sunne in Splendour, about Richard III, is 900 pages. When Christ and His Saints Slept, about the Anarchy—the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maude, and the time period for Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries—is also 900 pages. I started reading When Christ and His Saints Slept in January and still have about a hundred pages to go. It’s rewarding, but definitely not unputdownable.