The Last Hours (2017): Minette Walters


Minette Walters is best known as the author of crime novels, but her new book strikes out into fresh territory: historical fiction. She introduces us to the 14th-century village of Develish in Dorset: a prosperous, contented place despite the depredations of its arrogant lord, Sir Richard. His more thoughtful wife Lady Anne has quietly worked behind the scenes to improve the quality of life for their serfs, and received their love and loyalty in return. As Sir Richard rides out to deliver their daughter Eleanor’s dowry to her intended husband, Lady Anne’s abilities are about to be tested to the full. For it is 1348 and the countryside is troubled by rumours of a great pestilence, which kills with no respect for rank, age or piety. As Lady Anne and her serfs gather behind the manor’s defensive moat, the certainties of an entire age are about to be turned upside down.

I haven’t read any of Walters’s other books and so wasn’t quite sure what to expect from her style. The novel turned out to be slow-burner rather than a pacy thriller, admirably capturing the growing fear of the unseen, incomprehensible sickness that crosses the country so rapidly. By bringing her people within the protective cordons of the manor, Lady Anne hopes to keep them safe from the pestilence; but her decision causes new problems. Crammed into a tiny space, old feuds flare up, tempers run thin and the petulant Eleanor seethes at being forced to share living space with serfs. She is especially incensed when her newly independent mother appoints a new steward: not a proper man of Norman blood, but a bastard serf, Thaddeus Thurkell. Never mind that Thaddeus is sensible, bright and ambitious: Eleanor sees his appointment as a sign that her father’s values are being traduced, and she sets out to challenge her mother’s plans.

While I found this book very readable, there were several things about it that jarred with me. For a start, I couldn’t help feeling that several of the characters were modern men and women wearing medieval costume. Lady Anne, our heroine, has entirely modern values. She teaches the villagers to read; she introduces the concept of designated latrines and the importance of bathing; she even encourages her serfs to think of shrugging off their bonds and making new lives for themselves as freedmen. Naturally we sympathise with her views, but only because they speak much more of 21st-century attitudes than they do of those from six hundred years ago. And, if Lady Anne is philosophically ahead of her time, the pernicious Eleanor is an absolute brat, pure and simple. There are reasons for her difficult nature, as we discover, but she behaves so viciously that I can’t believe even the saintly Lady Anne would treat her with so much forbearance. Eleanor needed a slap on about page 4 and, not having received one, went on to poison the rest of the book. Rarely have I so longed for a character to die horribly of the plague. In fact, Walters gives most of her nobility short shrift: all but Lady Anne are avaricious, cruel or pusillanimous, perhaps because she’s also the only one of Saxon rather than Norman blood. (The Normans do not come out of this well.)

Thaddeus is considerably more interesting, and fulfils the standard ‘tall, dark and handsome’ formula for a historical-fiction hero with aplomb. He is a bit too good to be true, and I couldn’t help noticing that we’re specifically told he isn’t all that confident with a sword or a bow, as if to say that he may be tall and olive skinned with long jet-black hair and an air of natural leadership, but – honestly – he has his flaws. There’s clearly some kind of exciting backstory about his birth that’ll come out at some point, but don’t hold your breath. As I said, the book is slow-burning; it’s 560 pages long in the hardback version; and, sorry to break it to you, but it ends very abruptly with a ‘to be continued’. This annoyed me. There had been no warning that it was the first in a series and, having loyally read several hundred pages, I was on the point of seeing it all come to a nice, neat conclusion – and then it stopped. Just another chapter could have tied up some of the loose ends, surely, and given us a much more satisfying conclusion? (It also begs the question: what will the sequel be called? The Really-The-Last Hours?)

Having said all this, it’s a novel which never shies from the horror of the Black Death and the very grim things that had to be done to contain it. There are some clever twists and turns in the plot, but I must confess that its characterisation wasn’t quite strong enough for my liking and that I was distracted by what I perceived as anachronisms. I’m outnumbered, of course, and you should go to read some of the enthusiastic reviews on Amazon to help you decide whether or not this is something you might like. Walters has an enthusiastic fanbase and I hope her new venture will encourage more readers to dip their toes into historical fiction. For my own part, I probably won’t be seeking out the next volume in the story, although I’d like to know what is eventually revealed about the brooding Thaddeus. If his father turns out to have been a dashing Saracen pirate, you heard it here first.

Buy the book

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

12 thoughts on “The Last Hours (2017): Minette Walters

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    My vote for the sequel’s title goes to “The Last Minutes,” then she can do a trilogy with “The Last Seconds” as its final installment. 😛

    I read the first couple of Walters’ novels back when they first came out, and rather enjoyed them, they were psychological thrillers (with more emphasis on psychological than on thrilling) with a pronounced feminist streak (if I remember correctly, The Scold’s Bridle was my favourite of hers), I eventually stopped reading her, though, because the novels seemed increasngly bloated and the tone increasingly preachy – and from your review, it seems she retained those flaws when changing genres.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello Heloise! I’m so happy to hear from you. And that is a very good suggestion for the title. Maybe she could even go for a fourth book to wrap up the series and title it “The Last Instant”? Interesting comment on her crime novels: I can’t say that I have been particularly tempted to look them up, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if similar themes crept cross-genre between them.

  2. Virginia says:

    Was wondering if there will be a sequel to the Last Hours? Enjoyed the book but was left hanging. More questions than answers to how it ends!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I’m afraid I don’t know, Virginia. Judging by how it ended, I think there must be a sequel in the works – but I don’t know when it’s meant to be released, and I’m not sure that I’ll read it when it is… Keep your eye on the publisher’s website or on Amazon: that’s all I can advise!

  3. Bet says:

    I loved the book! I found it intriguing and found the heroine to be a strong and capable woman. It also showed what ‘people empowerment’ can accomplish.

  4. Jemima says:

    I completely agree! I’m about five chapters in and already annoyed by the jarring anachronisms, as well as the characters’ unlikely hyper-awareness of their own place in history and the progress still to be made. I find words such as ‘limbo’ being used instead of ‘purgatory’ incredibly frustrating, and gives the whole thing an air of being dumbed down for the modern reader.

    This said, I will continue to read the book; the story itself is entertaining at least and I do love this particular moment in history.

  5. Vivienne O'Regan says:

    I am so relieved to find another reviewer bothered by the anachronisms. I am reading its sequel via NetGalley. They had offered The Last Hours as well and so only recently read it and was jarred throughout.

    In ‘The Turn of Midnight’ they do continue especially lots about rats and fleas and I started feeling quite sorry for the scientists who had made that link centuries later. So thank you. I am definitely going to be in the minority in offering criticism but they do ask for honest reviews.

  6. caersidi says:

    Unsure if my previous comment was swallowed up as I was unsure of my password and had to reset.

    Basically just said I was also bothered by the anachronisms though clearly in a minority. They do continue in the sequel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s