Ordeal by Fire
PublisherAllison & Busby
Date Published22 September 2016
Price£ 19.99

Ordeal by Fire

by Sarah Hawkswood

Veteran Sheriff Sergeant Catchpoll must catch a 12th century arsonist who has set fires which have killed two people – and at the same time cope with a keen, but inexperienced, new Under Sheriff.


Sarah Hawkswood describes herself as a wordsmith and she is certainly that. Her introduction to the 12th century detective pairing of Bradcote and Catchpoll is possibly the most easy to read historical mystery of the year. Whether it’s action, reflection, deep personal feelings, description or even repeated gossip, her elegant and carefully chosen prose keep you glued to the page. She creates a medieval world of her own – and drags the reader deeply into it. Which is probably just as well, for the plot is relatively simple and the arsonist killer signposted quite early on.

This is as much a tale of personalities, relationships and ambitions as it is of murder and Hawkswood’s ability to bring even her most minor characters to vivid and realistic life gives it a must-read quality. It will be interesting to see how these characters develop through the series.

Worcester’s Under Sheriff, Hugh Bradcote, takes top billing, but star of the show is veteran Sheriff Sergeant Catchpoll. A close-mouthed, irascible, hard case, Catchpoll goes far beyond his statutory duties. He has his finger firmly on the town’s criminal classes and is perfectly happy, at need, to use his mailed fist to inflict peremptory justice. Almost a stereotype Senior NCO, Catchpoll likes to keep his more gentle feelings hidden behind a gruff, even sinister, exterior.

Bradcote is the typical young officer. Intelligent – he can speak good English at a time when the language of the aristocracy was Norman French – keen, but hopelessly inexperienced and sometimes given to the assumption that rank equals knowledge. The pair have worked together once before. But Catchpoll is less than overjoyed when after a fire at a silversmith’s shop and home, a charred corpse is discovered following a second blaze and he has no choice but to call in the under sheriff.

Bradecote is deep in a personal guilt crisis after the death of his young wife in childbirth, but the investigation gives him new focus and his analytical ability is soon at work as the pair face a series of twists and dead ends. More fires follow. A mysterious hooded figure is seen stalking the streets. And to cap it all, a months-old possible murder tangles the web even more.

Rank and the rigid social structure of the time makes it impossible for the pair to ever become buddies in the American sense of the word, but as the investigation proceeds both begin to realise each other’s value and a mutual respect starts to grow.

There’s a nice sub-plot involving a young man-at-arms who Catchpoll has selected as his trainee and possible successor, and this clever and wonderfully written tale should whet the reader’s appetite for more adventures for this unlikely pairing.

Reviewed 21 January 2017 by John Cleal