Crouchback – The Welsh Guard Mysteries

Sarah Woodbury has a new series called The Welsh Guard Mysteries. If you are a fan of the Gareth and Gwen mysteries you will probably like this new book. The books start about a year and a half after the death of Lewellyn. King Edward of England has taken over Wales and is building Caernarfon Castle as a symbol of English dominance in Wales. If you are a fan of Sarah Woodbury, you know she has an alternate history version of history where Lewellyn is still alive. In this series she follows the real timeline of history.

Before we begin the story, it is important to know what the term Crouchback meant at this time in history. A man who participated in the 9th crusade was given the honor of being allowed to wear a cross on the back of his clothing, so all would know the man was a crusader. The French word for cross, Croix, became crouch in English, thus Crouchback.

The story begins with Edward coming to Caernarfon with his wife, Elenore, so their child can be born in Wales. In their entourage is Lady Catrin, a Welsh woman who was married to an English minor noble when she was a young girl. Her husband is now dead and she is Lady in Waiting to the Queen. The royal party has made its way to Caernarfon and it is clear the local populace is not happy with the English taking over Wales. There is a lot of tension in the air and it won’t take much to set off the tinderbox that is this hostile environment.

Enter our main character Rhys; he is a Welsh man who can speak English and French. Aristocrats and Royals speak French at court and the rest of the people from England speak English. Most English people do not speak Welsh so they need a translator to deal with the local populace. Rhys is making his way to a murder site with the local coroner, Guy fitz Lacy. In those day, this was the person who had to figure out the reason for a death and then decide who had to pay death taxes to the king.

Guy is not particularly good at his job, he got it because he is the illegitimate brother of someone important to the king. He cannot be bothered to find out who really killed the man found murdered in a barn in the Welsh countryside near the town. Instead he is happy to blame a local Welsh person, any person will do. Especially since Guy has received a promotion and will soon be returning to England. He does not want to deal with this last bit of business before he leaves.

However, this is not good enough for Rhys. He works with the English so that he can be in a position to protect his people. Since Guy cannot speak Welsh, Rhys and the local people are having a discussion right in front of Guy to decide who is going to volunteer to be arrested with the understanding that Rhys will do all he can to find the real killer. But Rhys makes no false promises, the person who volunteers may or may not go free, depending on what he can find. An older man from the village volunteers and the clock starts ticking for Rhys to discover what really happened.

At this point in the story the reader know that Rhys has a secret but the reader does not know all the details. We just know that Rhys used to be a knight for Lewellyn and barley made it out of Climeri alive; in fact he was left for dead. He is hiding from the English in plain sight. This fact will become important as the story progresses.

At the beginning of the investigation it becomes clear that the dead man is an English knight. A cloak found near the body has the symbol of Lady Catrin’s son. This knight belonged to her husbands household and now her sons. Rhys has to ask her to identify the body, much as he does not want to. First, because she is a lady and he does not want to force her to look at a murdered body. Second, because they were friends as children and she might let people know who he really is. But Rhys does the right thing and ask for her help so that he can try to find the real killer before Guy executes the old man from the village who volunteered to be arrested.

Flash forward to the next day. As it turns out the Captain of the Kings Guard, Simon, is an old friend of Rhys from his crusade days and his secret is about to be out in the open anyway. Simon comes to town and asks Guy if he can speak to Rhys de la Croix. Guy is shocked to find his local welsh translator is actually a crusader who has the respect of King Edward and his brother Prince Edmund.

As the story progresses the team discovers two more murdered men and they have to figure out who is running around killing people before things get out of hand and before an innocent man is executed for the crimes. Rhys, with the help of Lady Catrin and his friend Simon work together to solve the mystery. Each has a different skill set and different access to information and witnesses.

To add an additional layer to the story, Rhys also has to deal with the political intrigue at court and facing King Edward, who thought he was dead. Will the king forgive him for letting everyone think he died with Lewellyn. Well this is the beginning of a new series of books so of course he will, but forgiveness is not a foregone conclusion to our cast of characters, it is a process that must be taken one step at a time.

We learn a lot about Rhys and his crusade days in flashback and in conversations he has with various characters; mainly Simon. I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone so I will just say that the time Rhys spent on crusade made him a trusted person to the English King and his family. This will put Rhys in a unique position not afforded to most Welsh at the time.

I did figure out who was the killer was before the author actually said it based on some clues she dropped. But it was not so obvious as to make the book boring. I look forward to Sarah Woodbury continuing this series. I think the author began this series because it is about time to wrap up the Gareth and Gwen series. Because she follows the historical timeline in that series as well, history is catching up to Gareth, Gwen, and Prince Hywel. Jumping to another timeline with a similar dynamic will make it so fans have some historical murder mysteries to look forward too.

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