The Demon’s Parchment is the third in Jeri Westerson’s "medieval noir" mystery series featuring former knight Crispin Guest, saved from the gallows several years earlier by his erstwhile lord, the Duke of Lancaster. Now a down-and-out investigator in London, Guest is aided by his young apprentice, nearly-reformed street urchin and cutpurse Jack Tucker.
In 1384, Jewish physician Jacob of Provençal engages Crispin to recover some stolen Hebrew parchments. Jacob first tells Crispin they are simple Hebrew texts, but subsequent events suggest they comprise a mystical text, the Kabbalah. When Crispin hears this, “[v]ague impressions of half-remembered stories whispered through his mind like wisps of candle smoke. ‘Jewish magic?’” Uttering words of the text, legend has it, can bring forth the Golem, a fearsome creature of clay.
In an England from which all practicing Jews have been exiled for nearly a century, Crispin grapples with a superstitious ignorance he never quite resolves, giving the story an intriguing moral dimension. His search for the Jewish documents barely begun, he happens upon a dead boy, the latest in a string of gruesome child murders, a major facet in a complex plot.
Richly intimate descriptions conjure up fourteenth-century London: “[T]he dusky outline of fog. . . swept slowly beyond him up the road like the Angel of Death and shrouded the carriage, painting it a ghostly shape with only the sound of the creaking wheels and clinking harness anchoring it to reality.” Kabbalistic magic seems more than possible in a noir atmosphere where, “with the light of a shopkeeper’s brazier filling the misty space behind, Crispin spied . . . something . . . against the snowy fog. A large, hulking silhouette.”
Although the pacing can be uneven, and readers may at times agree with Crispin’s assessment, “it was a confusing of facts,” the many threads of the mystery are wrapped into a neat package by the end. The fourteenth-century events of The Demon’s Parchment seem eerily modern and relevant for contemporary readers.