Monday, 12 January 2015

BOOK REVIEW - THE SCOLD'S BRIDLE

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” ― Voltaire

I am reading a murder mystery novel by Minette Walters at the moment: “The Scold’s Bridle”. Minette Walters (born 26 September 1949) is a British mystery writer. After studying at Trevelyan College, University of Durham, she began writing in 1987 with “The Ice House”, which was published in 1992. She followed this with “The Sculptress” (1993), which received the 1994 Edgar Award for Best Novel. She has been published in 35 countries and won many awards.

In “The Scold’s Bridle”, Mathilda Gillespie, an ill-tempered, snobbish, rude old woman in the village of Fontwell is found dead in her bathtub, with a peculiar medieval device over her head (the “scold’s bridle” of the title). A scold’s bridle, sometimes called a branks bridle or simply branks, was an instrument of punishment used primarily on women, as a form of torture and public humiliation. The device was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head. A bridle-bit (or curb-plate), about 2 inches long and 1 inch broad, projected into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue. The curb-plate was frequently studded with spikes, so that if the offender moved her tongue, it inflicted pain and made speaking impossible. Wives who were seen as witches, shrews and scolds, were forced to wear the branks, locked onto their head…

In terms of the plot, there is no shortage of suspects in the Dorset village where the victim lived and the characters all have to hide something about their past or indeed their present life. So far all characters are quite dark and quirky, none being lily-white in their entirety and even the most roguish having some redeeming qualities – rather like real life, I guess…

Sarah Blakeney, Mathilda’s doctor and one of the few people who actually liked the difficult, snobbish and intolerant (but also fascinating) woman, takes an interest in the case; her interest becomes very personal when she is revealed to be the main beneficiary of the deceased’s will. Suddenly Sarah is the center of local gossip, as she must face the accusations of Mathilda’s bereft daughter and granddaughter – as well as a police investigation that points increasingly in her own direction and forces her to face some troubling questions: What does her husband know that he’s not telling? And what really did happen during those tortured hours before Mathilda's death?

Reading the novel, I have once again been dumbfounded by the depths of baseness that human beings can fall into. They terrorise, they torture, they intimidate, they rape, they kill, they exact terrible prices for perceived wrongs and they can make other people’s lives a living hell. It is amazing what one human being can do another, and one needs no novels to have this point driven home. Reading the news in any newspaper daily, one can see this horrific side of human nature displayed in all of its full and lurid horror. Feelings of revulsion and outrage always overcome me when exposed to such images and reportage of atrocities. The latest terrorist attacks in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo HQ and at the Jewish market are cases in point.

However, after talking to people I wonder whether we are becoming inured to these outrageous acts, the shock that we should feel being replaced by a hardness of eye and a coldness of heart that familiarity breeds. Each of these terrible acts, each of these crimes against the basic decency of our race that should join us all into a family of man destroys our humanity, undermines our community and erodes our spirit.

Yet, with each of these acts against humanity one encounters, with each representation of evil incarnate that we meet, with each outrage, there is a redeeming feature. There are human devils ruled by malevolence, but there are also human angels whose thoughts and actions elevate humanity to the sphere of the divine. Yin and yang, I guess, a balance that totters on edge and whose fragile equilibrium keeps this world going.

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