An itinerant cleric from the Lincoln Bishopric stumbles across a troupe of Travelling Players in the winter forests of 14th century Yorkshire. Abroad without permission, Nicholas Barber is without money, food, warm clothes or a place to sleep. In joining the troupe, he becomes embroiled in a murder mystery that puts his life at risk.
Morality Play is a slight book – it does not set out to overtly comment on the social ills of 14th century fiefdom or religious zealotry. But it is there, the everyday descriptors and the presence of the lord of the manor, Edward de Guise, in his castle overlooking the town see to that.
The troupe is adept at presenting the morality plays of the time – traditional religious stories – but they’re broke. The few paying customers will not see them reach Durham in time for Christmas. So the mystery of the murdered boy is too much for Martin, the leader of the group. A woman may have been found guilty, but nothing adds up. And what about the disappearance of several other young boys from the area over the past year or so?
So begins the search for the truth – and the presentation of a play that will earn the players more money than they could ever dream of. But it’s a story fraught with dangers.
A master storyteller, Unsworth has presented a taut, thoroughly enjoyable historical detective story that was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Prize (it lost out to Pat Barker and The Ghost Road).