In the Portfolio section of this website, you’ll find my essay “Reading Medieval Mysteries,” with a special sidebar on the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, set in the twelfth century. You may want to take a look at that page before jumping forward in time to the fifteenth century for the medieval mystery series reviewed below.
The Dame Frevisse Series Margaret Frazer (1992-2008)
Dame Frevisse is a nun at St. Frideswide’s, a small fictional Oxfordshire convent. She’s a practical and clever sleuth, dealing with murders as well as with all the personality clashes and power struggles that are inevitable in a religious community. We meet Frevisse when she’s already a mature nun, dedicated to her vocation, but still struggling inwardly with sins that we would consider quite petty, such as jealous thoughts or impatience. It’s tough to be as feisty and outspoken as Frevisse when your conversation is limited by the Rule of St. Benedict to truly necessary speech. Fortunately, there are murder mysteries to be solved, so Frevisse gets permission from her Abbess to interrogate witnesses, for example. She also manages to travel quite a bit, on approved business for her convent or for her own family members.
The first six Dame Frevisse mysteries were written collaboratively by Gail Frazer and Mary Monica Pulver Kuhfeld, using the pen name Margaret Frazer. The rest of the series was written by Gail Frazer alone, still as Margaret Frazer. The series ended when Gail Frazer died in 2013. It’s worth mentioning that a character named Joliffe the Player is part of the action in four of the Dame Frevisse novels. Joliffe was then spun off in his own series of six mystery novels (by Gail Frazer) featuring a theater troupe.
The earlier novels in the Dame Frevisse series are like cozy mysteries set in an English village, with the convent standing in for the village. The pace of these novels is fast, but the quality of the construction of the central mystery varies. For a psychologically devastating one, try The Servant’s Tale; I didn’t guess the murderer at all.
Some of the later titles in the Dame Frevisse series, written by Gail Frazer alone, are more like historical novels, though always with a murder mystery for Frevisse to untangle. The series is set between the years 1431 and 1452, in the middle of the reign of the unstable King Henry VI and at the tail end of the Hundred Years’ War with France. So there are plenty of historical events that can be explored.
Dame Frevisse is cast as a fictional relative of the fourteenth-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. To emphasize this link, the titles in the series mimic those within Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though the Frevisse stories bear no resemblance to similarly titled stories by Chaucer. I think that reading the series in order works best, but that’s not essential. Here are all the titles: The Novice’s Tale (1992), The Servant’s Tale (1993), The Outlaw’s Tale (1994), The Bishop’s Tale (1994), The Boy’s Tale (1995), The Murderer’s Tale (1996), The Prioress’ Tale (1997), The Maiden’s Tale (1998), The Reeve’s Tale (1999), The Squire’s Tale (2000), The Clerk’s Tale (2002), The Bastard’s Tale (2003), The Hunter’s Tale (2004), The Widow’s Tale (2005), The Sempster’s Tale (2006), The Traitor’s Tale (2007), The Apostate’s Tale (2008).