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3.6 out of 5 stars
3.6 out of 5 stars
Clerkenwell Tales
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on 4 March 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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on 28 September 2005
It's funny the way none of the reviews pick up on either the conspiracy or the terrorism angle. The book is essentially a conspiracy story in which a group of highly placed men (the Dominus society - the footnotes claim it's historical, but I hadn't heard of it previously) use a heretical sect to create tension and disorder by placing incendiary devices in churches. The message is at once subversive (things are not what they seem) and conservative (even revolutionary movements are only pawns of the powerful).
It's impossible not to read this with the 7/7 events in mind, and to wonder to what extent our present climate of tension owes anything to this kind of strategy. You'd have to be a conspiracy nut to think that the 7/7 attacks were orchestrated to legitimise restrictions on our civil liberties, and I am sure that wasn't anywhere near the author's thoughts when he wrote it. But that this is the direction it points.
Oh, and it's a good read - I didn't really mind about the thin-ness of the characterisation, and I enjoyed the atmosphere of Clerkenwell.
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VINE VOICEon 27 July 2004
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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on 22 June 2004
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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on 31 December 2006
A very complicated set of stories centred around a plot to depose King Richard and place Henry Bolingbroke on the English throne. Ackroyd uses the characters created by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales to weave his story of death and destruction by a ruthless group of saboteurs. Each character has a chapter of events that lead to the capture of the lawful king. The action takes place in London and Ackroyd portrays an intriguing picture of the city in Mediaeval times. The book itself is however a disappointment with a multitude of characters each contributing to the whole.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 7 September 2011
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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on 4 January 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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 17 February 2010
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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on 31 October 2005
A great stylist, lovely writer at times. But often his books seem little more than that. This is one of the empty ones.
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on 1 October 2007
Ackroyd takes some (doubtless very erudite) historical research, and then builds a flimsy story around that research, rather using it to add to his story and characterisation. The result is a mishmash. I read it all the way through, because I didn't believe it could be so poor all the way through. But it was.
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