Historian F.J. Watson brings the medieval stronghold of Berwick-upon-Tweed to life in dark and beautiful ways in her haunting debut novel, Dark Hunter: A Town Under Siege. A Killer Within. Set physically in a city just a stone’s throw away from the modern boarder between Scotland and England, and positioned temporally only three short years after the disastrous Battle of Bannockburn, Watson brings all of her skill as a historian to bear in recreating the peril, and paranoia, that comes with being an Englishman defending King Edward II’s claim to Scotland in this particular time and place. The ongoing attrition with the Scots is a losing battle and the men at Berwick know that, even as they send reports and pleas back to their king for support across the course of the novel.
In the midst of this throng, a murder takes place. The beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant is stabbed to death and left outside the city walls, with no clear motive for her death, or obvious culprit, in sight.
Raised for the church and a life of quiet scholarship, only to be pressed down a martial path when his older brother dies suddenly before the novel begins, the responsibility for solving this murder falls squarely on the shoulders of Squire Benedict Russell. As the novel unfolds, Ben must grapple with his faith in God, his belief in those around him, and his understanding of where the myriad lines of good, evil, loyalty, and logic lead him. Answers are almost always complicated, and endings are rarely clean in the 14th century, and Ben’s experiences as he searches for the truth alongside Lucy, younger sister to the murdered girl, reflect that.
From the bells used to mark the time, to the mud of the streets, to the way his fellow squire, Will, treats the girls working in garrison’s kitchen, Watson’s extensive experience as a historian of this time and place shine in the little details. This is no sanitized view of the medieval period, there is rot here, and cruelty, even as there is beauty and cleverness and a protagonist who is only searching for the truth.
Beautiful in spite of the darkness, unflinching in its portrayal of the complicated dynamics within a wartime border town, and full of strongly drawn characters, Dark Hunter is a satisfying mystery sure to please fans of crime thrillers and historical novels alike.