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Clerkenwell Tales [Paperback]

Peter Ackroyd
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 April 2004
The scene is London, in 1399. It is the last year of the fourteenth century, and there is talk of an apocalypse. Richard II is on the throne, yet strange signs and portents are troubling the latter part of his reign. By the side of the River Fleet in Clerkenwell the people are restless, disenchanted with the church and their King. The streets of London are rife with rumour, heresy, espionage and murder and at the centre of the confusion is the nun, Sister Clarice, who has been vouchsafed visions of the future. Is she a genuine prophet, or the tool of earthly powers? This is a story of adventure and suspense set in the late medieval world. As in many of Peter Ackroyd's novels the distant past is no longer a foreign country but something alarmingly close and authentic. As one critic has put it, 'he is our age's greatest London imagination'.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (1 April 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0749386304
  • ISBN-13: 978-0749386306
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 149,240 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Ackroyd is the author of biographies of Dickens, Blake and Thomas More and of the acclaimed non-fiction bestsellers London: The Biography and Thames: Sacred River. Peter Ackroyd is an award-winning novelist, as well as a broadcaster, biographer, poet and historian. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature's William Heinemann Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award and the South Bank Prize for Literature. He holds a CBE for services to literature.

Product Description

Amazon Review

Peter Ackroyd opts for full immersion in The Clerkenwell Tales after dipping a toe, or ten, in the Middle Ages with Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. The Clerkenwell Tales is a gripping novel about murder and religious and political intrigue in 14th century London. As hinted at in the title, a cap is generously doffed to The Canterbury Tales; several characters and chapter headings mimic Chaucer and, at least superficially, it takes the form of a series of interconnected tales.

Although this is a work of fiction, it is nonetheless as rich in historical material as, say, his evocative London: A Biography. Set in 1399, it's heavily underwired by events surrounding Henry Bolingbroke's usurpation of Richard II. On the whole an appendix, dubbed "The Author's Tale", keeps the Ye Olde London factoids from intruding on the yarn but there are moments, especially when he touches on Medieval customs and eating habits, where the research bubbles to the surface. However, like Hawksmoor and The House of John Dee, it's Ackroyd's judicious use of the more esoteric shards of the capital's past that really fuels the drama. This is, after all, Clerkenwell in the era of the mystery plays; a district inhabited by quack physicians, dung rakers, heretical sects and murderous clerics. (Think Umberto Eco in EC1.)

Clarice, the novel's demonic central force, is a sister of the House of St Mary beset by visions. "Some called her the mad nun ... others revered her as the Blessed Maid of Clerkenwell" but in this "turbulent time of a weak and wretched king" Clarice's prophecies of impending doom strike an ominous chord. Elsewhere in the City, a shadowy group of pre-eminent Londoners, known as Dominus, have long been plotting to dethrone Richard and install Henry. William Exmewe, an Austin Friar and Dominus member, has slowly nurtured a gang of lowly religious dissenters--the foreknown, or predestined ones--to, unknowingly, aid their cause. Believing themselves, as Christ's true followers, to be absolved from all sin, William has persuaded them to wage, essentially, a terrorist campaign to bring on God's day of judgement. The predestined ones will fire five churches, making five wounds upon London, mirroring the five wounds of Christ and the five circles of an ancient Christian symbol. (A mystical five-pointed pentagram was something of a motif in Hawksmoor.) Quite how these schemes (and counter schemes) pan out is best left unspoiled. Ackroyd fans and anyone who savours cunning, intellectually exhilarating mystery tales will not be disappointed. --Travis Elborough --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"The Clerkenwell Tales is a truly extraordinary feat of historical imagination: a slim novel, straining at the seams with a sort of macabre relish, in which disgust and enthusiasm jostle" (Sunday Telegraph)

"Historical fiction of the utmost potency" (Daily Mail)

"A tour-de-force, full of rich imaginings and strange happenings. It is as finely wrought as an illuminated manuscript" (Scotsman)

"A brilliantly imagined thriller" (Guardian)

"Roars and leaps through the London streets with thrilling energy...the result is tremendous. Ackroyd is a wonderful guide and torchbearer, bringing light to the darkest corners of humanity" (Independent)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating historical read 4 Mar 2005
The year is 1399. London is rife with rumours of the overthrow of an increasingly unpopular Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke. In the style of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Peter Ackroyd chronicles the intersecting lives of a wide array of the city's inhabitants caught in this world of dangerous political and religious intrigue.
Ackroyd has created a fast-paced, historically-detailed journey down the lanes and alleys of medieval London that is a joy to read. Equally fun - and sometimes a challenge - is negotiating the vocabulary of Medieval English, Anglo-French and variants of Latin! It is also great fun meeting such a wide-ranging cast of London folk.
Despite being an immensely enjoyable historical read, The Clerkenwell Tales has shortcomings as a novel. Although described as a 'murder-mystery' there doesn't appear to be much in the way of coherent plot/storyline: indeed, there are three (or more) murders but no sustained mystery or organized investigation into their perpetration. Moreover, due to the large number of characters and short length of this novel, none of the characters is developed in sufficient depth to engage the reader's emotional involvement in their fortunes.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A medieval mystery 27 July 2004
By John Wilson VINE VOICE
Yet again, Ackroyd comes up trumps with an eminentely readable - I'd say, unputdownable - murder mystery tale set in Clerkenwell, by the old River Fleet, London in 1399. Ackroyd uses all his copious historical knowledge to evoke a memorable picture of medieval life, replete with a cast of colourful characters. At times I could almost smell the blood of old Smithfield and see the Fleet. Ackroyd brings together diverse plot threads around Sister Clarice, a nun who seems to have a direct line to God but who is profoundly destabilising to the community. The backdrop to the plot is the demise of Richard II and Bolingbroke's ascent to the throne. Through this is woven apocalyptic sects, Lollards, whores and useless medics. How Ackroyd brings all these characters together in the unpredictable but thrilling denouement is for the reader to find out. Please do read this book - if you're intrigued by the idea of medieval London then savour its recreation here.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing 22 Jun 2004
By Jimbo
Having read a London: The Biography and The Life & Times of Sir Thomas More, I was looking forward to reading The Clerkenwell Tales. Sadly I was disappointed, as the book largely failed to live up to the sum of its parts. This historical novel delves into the usurpation of King Richard II by Henry Bollingbroke, and Ackroyd puts forward a grand conspiracy theory for the events. The historical detail was superb, and it focuses is slightly skewed more towards ordinary people rather than the politicians and statesmen whom history tends to favour.
There were some nice comic touches to the book and the writing rattles along at a nice pace. The characters were by and large well drawn - especially the comic characters. One also felt secure with the detail in the book - often historical fiction plays hard and fast with facts to create a gripping storyline, but Ackroyd's reputation, and the footnotes made me feel like I was being guided by a safe pair of hands.
The book rotated through a number of voices, and it is here where the problems with the book start. Ackroyd fails to build up tension because one does not really feel sympathy or start rooting for one particular character. There is a collegiate nature to the way that the investigation into the conspiracy progresses, which tends to blunt much of the dramatic tension and the way that it is built up. The book works as a series of set-pieces, but doesn't really knit together terribly well. It comes across as quaint rather than dark and brooding, which was presumably the intended effect.
This is a disappointing book. Ackroyd is a superb historian, and that comes across clearly in the book. However, his dramatic skills perhaps need honing. If his next novel looks interesting, I would be tempted to give it a try...
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4.0 out of 5 stars Medieval Magic 17 Feb 2010
By Mrs. K. A. Wheatley TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
I really enjoyed this slight but complex novel about the rise to power of Henry Bolingbroke and the fall from grace of Richard II. This is a kind of patchwork homage to the Canterbury Tales told with the air of a thriller, and if that sounds complicated, it's because it is.

It is however thoroughly well researched, historically accurate, fascinating in the way it builds up a picture of Medieval London and its inhabitants, and an utterly fascinating read. Ackroyd excels at creating a sense of place and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Learn social history by reading this thriller 4 Jan 2010
Ackroyd, biographer and historian of London, sets this novel at the time of Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne from Richard II. But this is just the political framework for a City of London thriller in which events take place through the eyes of the people whose occupations are those of Chaucer's pilgrims. A compelling reconstruction of a lost world from which you learn as much as from any history. Fascinating social detail and persuasive dialogue, metaphorical and aphoristic, which may or may not reflect how people spoke then.
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5.0 out of 5 stars review of Clerkenwell Tales 8 Nov 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The Clerkenwell Tales was a very informative and entertaining book. Gave great insight into life in Oondon at that time
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4.0 out of 5 stars Clerkenwell, London. The Date - 1399 7 Sep 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Ackroyd at home again, bringing to life a city he knows and loves so well. I have most of his books - fiction, non-fiction, collections from newspaper articles and I enjoy his writing - erudite, entertaining and interesting. After his programme on London walks, my wife and I did the walks. With my son, I have even photographed and written on Clerkenwell, a fascinating part of London.

Clerkenwell took its name from the Clerks' Well in Farringdon Lane, part of which is still visible. Clerkenwell Green has for centuries been associated with radicalism: 16th century Lollards, 19th century Chartists, 20th century communists, Lenin and Stalin met in the Crown and Anchor and the left-leaning publications like "The Guardian" and "The Observer" once had headquarters here. Ackroyd chose his setting and dates carefully.

1399. London is riven with tales of the unpopular Richard II's overthrow by Henry Bolingbroke; like Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" (written around 1392), he builds a fast-paced series of tales told from different viewpoints which intersect. Unlike Chaucer's pilgrims with whom one relates in addition to their tale and who always have a coherent direction, i.e. Canterbury, there are times when the direction of the "Clerkenwell Tales" seems a little obscure and the characters are not always built well enough to relate to them.

Enjoyable but not one of Peter Ackroyd's best but then that is only my tale.
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