Morality Play

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth. The most disappointing thing about this stand-alone mystery is that it isn’t the beginning of a series of books. The idea of an outsider joining a traveling troupe of players in rural medieval England is one I’ve read before in Margaret Frazer’s Joliffe series, but thankfully in this case Unsworth does not submit his readers to sleep-inducing pages of internal contemplation by the main character. Instead, he focuses his attention on the action making for a much faster paced and more enjoyable story. Nicholas Barber is a twenty-three-year-old priest who leaves his position at Lincoln Cathedral in shame after breaking his vows. In desperation he joins with a small band, replacing one of the group that has died suddenly, as they journey to Durham to perform at the Christmas festivities there. All seems normal when they stop in a small village to bury their fellow thespian in hallowed ground and to earn a few pennies for their journey. But when their master-player decides that they must depart from their normal roster of morality plays and create a new drama based on a recent local murder, they become embroiled in events darker than they had planned. In gathering information to flesh out their new characters and dialog, the players discover that the evidence points away from the convicted girl awaiting execution and towards other more powerful members of the community. In the same way that Frank Tallis uses music as a way to describe 1900 Vienna and Cora Harrison uses flowers to capture the lushness of 1500 Ireland, Unsworth uses the complicated hand gestures which pass as unspoken communication between players on stage to bring readers closer to the characters and the setting. Unsworth also does an excellent job of keeping readers as disoriented as the actors. Although the ending is not a complete surprise, one never knows for certain how the situation will turn with each new piece of the puzzle.

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