Bascot de Marins

(creator: Maureen Ash)

Maureen Ash
Sir Bascot de Marins had been partly brought up in a monastery where his father had sent him at the age of seven as an oblate (an offering) to the church. A few years later he had been brought back home and it was not long before he had won the spurs of knighthood at his father's side in battle. Looking for a way to combine his yearning for the life of a monk with his military skills, he joined the Knights Templar. Then on a crusade to the Holy Land in 1191, he was captured by the Saracens and it was eight long years before he escaped from their captivity, and then only after he had had his right eye burnt out with a hot poker because of his insolence. As a result, he had to wear a black leather patch over the missing eye. After a subsequent shipwreck, his leg was injured, so he was left too with a pronounced limp. He returned home to find that "all of his family had died during a pestilence".

He was now "a few years past thirty" and was "a man of medium height, with skin burnt by the sun to the colour of old copper, and hair and beard of dark brown that was prematurely threaded with grey. His one remaining eye was blue, so pale in colour that it was startling in the burnished darkness of his skin." However, "the faith that turned burst forth so joyously when he had pledged himself to Christ" had lessened, and it was "because of this lack of faith that the Templar Master in London had suggested he'd leave the order for a space and recover his health within the shelter of the Royal Castle of Lincoln", where Lady Nicolaa had taken him into her household, happy to make use of his literacy at a time when "literacy was uncommon, even amongst the nobility".

When joining the Templars he had taken vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, and "so far, the vow of chastity remained unsoiled. That he had kept these ten long years, though he had to admit that his capture and subsequent imprisonment had made the vow easier to keep". However, he was glad that he no longer had to wear "the lambskin girdle and sheepskin drawers a Templar donned when he took his oath. They were never to be taken off, not even for washing either the garments or the body, so that an initiate would not be tempted by their absence into the sin of lust."

The only person for whom he seems to show any love is a young mute Italian boy Gianni (aged about eleven or twelve, stunted in size but with a "quick and intelligent mind") whom he had rescued from desperate poverty in Sicily and who is now his devoted servant. But there is no hint of anything improper in their relationship. Indeed Bascot seems to show a remarkably few sexual feelings of any sort. But he has "a forte for uncovering the truth behind men's actions" and "could be tireless in his quest for truth", even if, on occasions, his investigations lead him to accuse the wrong person.

Maureen Ash (c1939 - ) was born in London and developed a lifelong interest in medieval history. Visits to castle ruins and old churches provided the inspiration for her novels. She now lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada where, she says, she enjoys Celtic music, browsing in bookstores and Belgian chocolate. Bascot's personal details arose out of her own experiences as a young child in London when she saw soldiers returning from horrific experiences in the Second World War. She is fascinated by the details of medieval life and aims to bring them alive in her stories.

The Alehouse Murders (2007)
The Alehouse Murders is set in Lincoln in the summer of 1200. It describes how, after eight years of captivity in the Holy Land, Templar Bascot de Marins has been sent to Lincoln Castle where he hopes to regain his strength and mend his winning faith. But, with Lincoln's mid-summer fair about to begin, four victims are found slain in the town alehouse. Called upon for assistance in the investigation, Bascot discovers that what appears to be the grisly end to a drunken row is in fact a cunning and baffling crime. As more murders occur, Bascot tracks his quarry from bawdy house to baron's keep, always ready to risk his life in the process.

He has skills as an observer as "throughout his long captivity Bascot had become well versed in the meaning of facial expressions - a sudden colour, or lack of it, in the skin; the quick glance of an eye or the tremble of the muscle. When one is a slave among other slaves and all subject to the whim of a master, it is well to be able to recognise the emotions behind another's eyes." So he can usually tell whether or not people are telling the truth. It is a pity though, that despite all this, he goes on to identify the wrong person as the murderer.

Apart from Boscat himself, the other character who is of particular interest is Nicolaa de la Haye who is left by her husband to look after the castle while he busies himself with his job as sheriff or is out enjoying himself hunting. It is her hope to persuade Boscat to leave the Templars and accept an offer to remain in her household.

The most interesting parts of the story are the historical insights into life at the time, as when we hear in detail how an expert cobbler is able to make special boots (with "small pads, one on each side, made from the soft underbelly of a calf") to help Boscat's painful ankle, or how specially imported candi (boiled sweets, made from canes that grew in the Holy Land, that were specially imported by the Templars and kept in a small leather sack), was Boscat's favorite treat. Or there is a description of the way that the precentor of the Templars could, "if he deemed it is advisable, advance monies to individuals outside the Order for their own purposes. To avoid the stigma of usury, these loans were given without interest, but the amount stipulated under the terms of the loan was always a little more than the actual amount borrowed, in order to cover the cost of the Templar's handling of the arrangement."

Unfortunately, though, it is difficult to feel very involved in the story. Some of its intricacies fail to hold the attention, and there is a general lack of suspense or excitement, and this applies even to the grand climax when Boscat sets himself up as a target for the murderer's attack by lying spreadeagled on the chapel floor "face down and arms extended so that his body formed an imitation of the cross that hung above him". The murderer's identity, in the words of another character, "seems hard to credit", and there follow lots of tedious explanations. There is even a description of a tourney with nearly a hundred combatants, that the author obviously found interesting but that seems to have little to do with the plot. Then Boscat has to decide whether or not to rejoin the Templars. "Life was difficult to understand," he realises. Considering all that has happened to him, he seems a bit slow on the uptake.

Death of a Squire (2008)
Death of a Squire takes place in the late autumn of 1200, just a few months after the previous story. The townspeople of Lincoln are preparing to host the first meeting between the King of Scotland and King John, when the body of Hubert, an unpopular 17-year-old squire, is found hanging from a tree deep in the forest. Lady Nicolaa de la Haye, the castellan of Lincoln Castle, entrusts Bascot with the task of finding the killer. When outlaws kidnap his trusted young servant, Gianni, whom Bascot is beginning to think of as his own son, he is determined to find out what has happened to him.

This is by far the most coherent and interesting of the books in the series, parts of it, such as the rescue of Gianni, and a description of a wild boar hunt, being genuinely exciting. You really feel for Gianni when he is captured by outlaws. And there is a toughness and reality about some of the descriptions, such as that of the village girl Bettina, whom Herbert had "kept pesterin' " that ring true, and there's no nonsense about the way that Bascot examines Hubert's dead body to find that he had been garrotted before he had been hanged. There is a gritty realism too in the description of the life of charcoal burners: "Chard's face was just as dirty as his sons, his hands and nails black and ingrained with the dirt that been there so long it would never wash off. The goatskin garment he wore gave off a pungent smell and was stiff with old sweat and grime." And there is no sentimentality in the way that Bascot threatens him and tries to force his cooperation. Or in the way that the later bloody murder of the charcoal burner and his two sons is eventually described.

The nine year old page Osbert seems less convincing, as when, after telling Bascot of Hubert's boasted prowess with women, he adds, "I don't know if what he said was true, Sir Bascot. Especially since his bollocks and shaft weren't much bigger than mine." He sounds a very precocious nine-year-old. And the young boy Baldwin sounds rather too good to be true when he is described as "so learned and so pure, and his faith in God was of a strength rarely found in priests". And the life of Templars, described as noble men "who lived as he had done, scrupulously obeying their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience" does not entirely match their later reputation.

But once Gianni is captured by outlaws and an arrangement is made to exchange him for a captured prisoner, real excitement mounts up. Unfortunately, though, the book does not end there but relapses into anticlimax with some long and largely unnecessary explanations of what has happened. And the plot creaks a bit when two warring outlaws find each other "by accident". But it still remains the best book of the series.

A Plague of Poison (2009)
A Plague of Poison is set in Lincoln in the spring of 1201. Just as things seem quiet at Lincoln Castle (it is only the third set of murders within a year!), a scribe is found dead from a honeyed cake meant for the castellan, Lady Nicolaa de la Haye. Templar Bascot de Marins, who is in her service, is summoned to her aid, and, when a series of seemingly unconnected murders follows, discovers that they are in fact the work of a single person. With the help of his servant, the mute boy Gianni, he is finally able to unmask the murderer.7
The story gets off to a dramatic start although, as the plot progresses the pace slows down. As usual the author is best at picking out interesting details of life at the time, as when she describes "a sheaf of greenery fixed beside the door, denoting it was an ale house" or explains how a tanner "had, for some time, been drinking a pint of bull's urine every day, hoping that the potency of the animal from which it came would prove to be an antidote for his own sad lack of performance." Particularly memorable is the description of how caged rats are used to test the possibly poisoned honey: the rat catcher pushed honeyed bread "through the iron bars of the cage. All waited and watched with morbid fascination as the rodent first sniffed at the morsel then turned it over and over in its tiny paws before beginning to nibble at the bread. It was not long before the honey's deadly effects became apparent. Soon the rat began to shake and twitch, then froth bubbled from its mouth and it began to convulse. The spectators watched in awestruck horror as the rodent suffered one final, and obviously painful, spasm and fell on to its side, dead."

There is a good description too of the Queen of the May celebrations, explaining how the girl who was lucky enough to pick out the hidden blue pebble from a jar full of pebbles was the one who then became queen. "Even though the rest of the women were disappointed, they took their loss in good part and gave the lucky girl smiles of congratulation. Nicolaa signalled that it was now time for the wardrobe mistress to present the girl's prize, a chaplet which was, by custom, worn every year by the servant proclaimed queen of May. It was a dainty headdress, with flowers embroidered on a length of silk woven about a circlet of bronze. It was a treasure to be coveted, for the girl who was elected would be allowed to retain the delicate piece of material as her own once the celebrations were over."

The author is not so successful, though, in capturing the language of the time which is often made to sound rather stilted as when Lady Nicolaa says, "It would seem we are once again involved in the machinations of a murderer, de Marins. Let us pray we are as successful in catching him as we have been beforetimes".

The author's own style is sometimes equally mannered as when she comments that Nicolaa "had a great regard for the Templar knight but knew that he was prone to niceties of conscience that sometimes were counter-productive to his well-being. His empathy for those who found themselves in distress was to be lauded, as was the case with his young servant, but she feared that, because of it, he had allowed himself to be deceived by the potter's false protestations." And then there are sentences like, "Was it possible he had allowed the proliferation of evidence to subjugate an instinct that had been a true one?" It does not exactly flow from the tongue.

The author has a liking for street names that she obviously feels add to the historical accuracy of her story but she overdoes it as when we are told that one of the characters "lived in a house on Clachislide, which was a street that branched off Mikelgate near the church of St Peter at Motson. Bascot took Gianni with him, but they did not go directly to it, taking a circuitous route by walking down Danesgate until they came to Clazledgate before turning onto Clachislide."

She uses the familiar device of cutting away every now and then to give us brief descriptions of what the murderer is up to. We are told that, even though he had failed to kill Nicolaa, "he consoled himself with remembrance of the fearful agitation among the castle household after the discovery of the poison; the secret power he held over them all had given him a heady rush of exhilaration. It would be accelerated even further when the next victims fell prey to his venom. He looked forward to it with eager anticipation." It is hard to take him too seriously.

Bascot himself isn't always a very sympathetic character, as when he tells a prisoner, "If I find that you are lying, I will see to it that you suffer the torments of hell before you hang". It is explained that "Having once been a prisoner himself, after his capture by the Saracens, he knew only too well what it was to suffer the degradation that came from being at the mercy of others. Although he had little liking inflicting the same humiliation on another human being, it might be the only way to get the man in front of him to admit the truth." He is not really such a great detective either, as it is actually a suggestion of Nicolaa's that eventually leads to the trapping of the criminal.

There is too much talk, and, despite the fact that there are as many as six murders, too little dramatic action or interplay of characters to hold the interest throughout, and even the climax is not as gripping as it might be. But the historical details still give it some interest.

Murder for Christ's Mass (2009)
Murder for Christ's Mass starts in December 1201.The town of Lincoln is covered in white, but on Christmas morning the snow also conceals the mortal remains of a clerk who worked in the local mint and has been stabbed, robbed, and left in a stone quarry. With the Sheriff busy entertaining noble guests, Bascot is asked to investigate. The only clue he finds is a pristine coin from the time of King Stephen, who reigned some 50 years earlier. The sheriff suspects that a horde of hidden treasure may connect the killer to the victim. But Bascot, aided by his young protégé Gianni, soon discovers that the motive goes far beyond just money.

The mixture is much as before: the plot, involving a missing silver trove soon gets rather tedious and at the end the story-telling slows down even further with page after page of detailed explanation. Once again it is the historical details, such as the description of food served at a festive meal, or of the presents given to each servant at the end of the year, or of how coins are minted, that arouse the interest.

It is difficult to remember who all the characters are, and, presumably because the author (or her editor?) recognised this, she includes a list of characters at the start of the book. Bascot himself is not always a very sympathetic character as when he tried to bully a prisoner into telling the truth: he grabbed him "by the front of his tunic and slammed him into the wall. The back of the silversmith's head struck the hard stones with a sickening crunch and his eyes rolled back in his head." Admittedly Bascot is then "appalled by his own brutality. He had let the deadly sin of anger leads him into the very behaviour he decried in the infidel Moors." But he feels that "God had ordained he'd be a stalker of murderers" although, once again, in the end, he wrongly identifies the murderer.

Two more sympathetic characters are mute young Gianni who is now training to be a clerk, and the boy Stephen who was born of a noble family but with a cleft lip and disfigured face which he covers with a cloak. It is to help him communicate that Gianni writes down a description of the hand signals that he used to "talk" to Bascot. it becomes the book "A Manual of a Silent Language for those Afflicted with Muteness and Difficulty in Speaking." An interesting idea.

Gianni, we are told, had now "arrived at the age when young males start to become painfully aware of the attractions of female pulchritude". He dreams about a girl who was not only older than him but came from a noble family: "When he awoke, his body was tingling with unfamiliar sensations, pleasurable ones that left him aglow with happiness". It all sounds too romanticised.

As in the previous books, even the climax, when Bascot climbs up the outside of the Minister in pursuit of the murderer, is not as exciting as it might have been. Indeed, it seems almost casually described, as the murderer tells Bascott, " 'I reckon as how they'd (his family) a been better off without me in this earthly life. 'Twill most like be the same in the hereafter.' So saying, and with one final look at the gargoyle, he stepped off the roof and out into open space. He did not scream, and the only noise that could be heard was the collective gasp from the spectators below and the dull thud of his body hitting the ground." It is a pity that we can't feel more involved.

Shroud of Dishonour (2010)
Shroud of Dishonour describes how the shocking discovery of a strangled prostitute in the Templar Chapel throws the Order into disarray. Alongside the corpse is a purse containing thirty pence – the same amount of silver pieces Judas received for betraying Christ. Is the murder revenge for a Templar brother's betrayal? Or has one of their own broken his vow of chastity? The Order's precentor turns to Bascot to discover whether or not an outsider is seeking to dishonour the Templars or a murderer is walking among their ranks.

At first it seems an interesting enough situation. Bascot is now “barely past his mid-thirties", and once again Gerard Camfield, Sheriff of Lincoln, and Roget, captain of the town guard, are both pleased to work with him on so serious a crime. Roget particularly values his “facility for searching out seemingly irrelevant inconsistencies and proving they were important", so is “more than willing to let the Templar take the lead in their search".

Bascot seems to do a great deal of thinking, and eventually comes up with the murderer's identity, but the lack of exciting action or of interesting characters (with the possible one exception of the dumb 14-year-old Gianni) once again make it very hard to feel really involved. And again it is not helped by the author's ponderous style, as when Nicolaa de la Haye's (she is the castellan of Lincoln castle) secretary tells Gianni, “I well know how much assistance you gave Sir Bascot when he delved into previous murders and so does milady. It would be remiss of me not to present your conjectures to her, even if they prove to be erroneous."

I'm afraid that the story, despite its promising start, fails to hold the interest throughout, and the lengthy discussions, conjectures and detailed explanations end up by proving distinctly tedious.

There is a question and answer session with the author on the Berkleys Prime Crime site, but hardly any other biographical information.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


The Alehouse Murders cover
Murder for Christ's Mass cover
The covers in the Templar Knight series well suggest the medieval world which so intrigues the author.
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