The Last Hours is the eighteenth novel by British author, Minette Walters, and is a departure from her usual genre of crime/psychological thriller: this one is historical fiction. It’s June 1348, and the Plague has just arrived in England. The population is completely unprepared for the devastation this disease will wreak, but a scant few demesnes are better equipped to handle it than most. A Saxon, Lady Anne of Develish in Dorsetshire was raised by nuns; she has been quietly running the demesne in an efficient and compassionate way underneath the radar of her cruel Norman husband.
Sir Richard of Develish departs for another demesne to set up his spoilt fourteen-year-old daughter in an advantageous marriage but Gyles Startout, Anne’s informant in Richard’s retinue, soon realises there is a sickness afflicting the nearby village. Potent and virulent, it appears to be something that kills quickly with few survivors. By the time Sir Richard decides to return to Develish, its already too late for many of his party.
In response to an announcement from the Bishop of Sarum regarding “A Black Death”, Anne takes the unconventional step of bringing the demesne’s bondsmen to live on the land contained within the moat that Sir Richard had, in his vanity, built as a folly. Her plan to isolate them from the rest of the population is a revolutionary measure that proves to be the salvation of Develish and its serfs.
On her husband’s return, she insists on his party being quarantined, a move that angers young Lady Eleanor and also attracts censure from Hugh de Courtesmain, Sir Richard’s Norman steward. As does her later appointment of a serf as Steward. Thus they survive, free of the pestilence, for some months, but how long will they last on the food they have stored? And how will they avoid attack from raiding parties? Then a teenaged boy dies, and Anne’s steward takes drastic action.
Walters gives the reader a fascinating look into the mid-fourteenth Century, bringing history to life in what is obviously the product of extensive research. Her characters are complex, human and flawed. They have secrets and doubts and weaknesses and their actions result in plenty of intrigue. Walters explores not just the ordeal of surviving the plague, but also, surviving in a world drastically changed, with a population so severely depleted that the very dynamic between serf and master is altered.
While is does not exactly end in a cliff-hanger, there are several matters left unresolved by the final twists, and the last pages reveal that there will be a sequel, which is unfortunately not slated for publication until October 2018, so readers have to wait a year to learn the further fates of Anne and Gyles and Thaddeus and Isabella. Walters has proven without any shadow of doubt that she has much more than one string to her bow. A brilliant read.