Herrens år 1400
(The year of Our Lord, 1400)
by Dick Harrison
reviewed by James Walker
Herrens år 1400 is the third in a series of thrillers by author and historian Dick Harrison. Like the first two, Herrens år 1398 (The Year of Our Lord, 1398) and Herrens år 1399 (The Year of Our Lord, 1399), the third instalment is set on the island of Gotland and more specifically in its main town, Visby. In this period, at the end of the 1390s, Teutonic knights have banished lawless sailors from the island and restored peace and stability once more.
Enter Thierry of Liège, a squire who came to Gotland with the Teutonic knights and has (in the first two novels) established a reputation as a ‘bloodhound’.
Some Russians from Novgorod have come to Gotland, seemingly to dispose of assets held there from an earlier period, including their Russian church. Accompanying them, Thierry learns are ‘Russian whores’ (actually Tatar), most of whom have been sold off to wealthy buyers.
A fire occurs in a remote corner of Visby where they are housed. Unable to flee the flames, the one remaining woman and all but one of the Russians are burnt to death.
The Teutonic knight and bailiff in Visby, Johann av Techwitz, gives the task of investigating the cause of the fire to Thierry, who upon visiting the blaze site thinks that the fire may have been started deliberately. He also thinks that the victims of the blaze had no chance of escaping as the exits may have been blocked to prevent this.
Clues are thin on the ground but in the woman’s house they find a mantel brooch, a dagger and some money. These are locked in a chest in the knights’ refectory for safekeeping.
On being questioned by Thierry, the Russian survivor, Boris Tverdislavitz, claims that he survived as he had left the building to relieve himself and when the fire caught he was still outside. He is nonetheless a suspect and is sent off to spend the night in the Russian church.
Early next day, Thierry visits the church to continue his investigation and finds Boris dead on the floor from a vicious blow to the head. Boris must have let his killer in and so must have known and trusted whoever did it.
The investigation is underway and requires all of Thierry’s cunning and bloodhound instinct.
Thierry is confronted with an ever more intriguing pursuit of the truth, as some items of evidence are stolen, whilst others are planted in unlikely places in order to try and throw him off the scent. The motive however remains a mystery. There is one theory that the Russians have come to Gotland to set up a network of influential local informants. But why?
Gradually, Thierry is able to whittle down the number of suspects by a clever process of elimination until he is finally left with but a few likely candidates. However, he has to tread extremely carefully in order to solve the crimes. He has already been assaulted by a mob which left him injured and having to use a crutch, which severely restricts his mobility. An inconvenience, however, but one he puts up with.
Compared to thrillers set in the present, Herrens år seems to be slow moving, but once the reader settles into the pace at which the crimes are uncovered and solved, this in itself adds to the suspense and the reader’s overall enjoyment.
The author, familiar with the period thanks to his ‘day-job,’ as a historian, uses rich language punctuated with archaic phrasing and a wonderful vocabulary that roots the reader in the period and in the events that have led up to the situation in Visby in the year of our Lord 1400.
Herrens År 1400
Ordfront förlag, Stockholm, 2022
Foreign Rights: Ordfront förlag
Dick Harrison is a professor of history at the University of Lund who has written numerous fiction and non-fiction works. His non-fiction work Ett stort lidande har kommit över oss. Historien om trettioåriga kriget (A Great Suffering Has Befallen Us. The Story of the Thirty Years War) was reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2015: 1.