Our favourite 12th-century detective is back with a new mystery to solve! In Murder at Penwood Manor, Xan goes back to Harwood Abbey for an Easter visit with his friends and family there. However, a murder immediately after his arrival embroils the entire town in tension. As Xan struggles to determine who the murderer is, he also struggles with questions about his own future.
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The Harwood Mysteries
Murder at Penwood Manor is the fifth book in the Harwood Mysteries, a series of novels by Antony Barone Kolenc that follow Xan through everyday life in medieval England. In his acknowledgements, Kolenc explains the themes of these books:
I’ve tried to take a different approach with every book, offering something new and exciting in each. Shadow in the Dark was an adventuresome introduction to the Middle Ages with … a focus on the concepts of death and suffering. The Haunted Cathedral was a ghost story, with a focus on the theme of forgiveness. The Fire of Eden was a jewel-thief whodunnit, with a focus on pride and humility. The Merchant’s Curse was a witch’s tale, as well as a case study on the wonderful Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. For Murder at Penwood Manor, I wanted to write a medieval murder mystery, with a focus on the little-understood and rarely discussed vice of envy.
Murder at Penwood Manor plot summary
Xan is on his way back to Harwood Abbey with his Uncle William and his friends Father Philip and Christina when they meet two other travelers on the road: Robert, another merchant, and Laurence, a crusader on his way home. The two parties travel together to Penwood Manor, where they are all staying. The next day, their peaceful Easter visit is interrupted with the new of murder. Roger, a man who had been flirting with Laurence’s fiancé Muriel, has been killed with Laurence’s sword.
As the local sheriff locks Laurence away, Muriel pleads his innocence. Against Christina’s wishes, Xan begins to ask questions, trying to determine if Laurence killed Roger and if not, then who. He is met with threats from the town ruffian, who wants to see Laurence hung for Roger’s murder, as well as resistance from other townspeople. Then Brother Leo is injured and Muriel confesses to the murder herself.
As he tries to sort through the clues and conflicting information, Xan also struggles with questions about his own path. His friend Lucy seems settled into her life in the nunnery, where he can no longer see her. Christina hides the scar on her face and bristles at any mention of Lucy. Uncle William, caught up in the success Robert has achieved as a merchant in the Holy Land, heads there himself. Yet where does God want Xan to go?
My thoughts on this book
Murder at Penwood Manor is a fun yet thought-provoking read. I confess I’m a huge fan of historical fiction and so I love the way that Kolenc draws young readers into this genre and time period. Each book is meticulously researched and teaches kids about various aspects of faith as well as history. While Xan now lives as a merchant, he still has close ties to the abbey and his friends there, so we hear about life as a novice nun and lay brother as well as other Benedictine traditions and practices.
Xan is fourteen in this novel and, like many other young teens, struggles with direction in his life. He faces conflicting advice from his friends as he tries to do what’s best. And he gets mad and makes mistakes, like any normal teen. While most teens aren’t solving mysteries or considering marriage, I think Xan’s life still offers todays’ readers much to consider as they chose their own paths in this world (and whose advice to take on that path).
Murder at Penwood Manor would be a great Christmas present for the avid young reader on your Christmas list. Better yet, get them the whole series if they haven’t yet been introduced to Xan and his friends! Each book does stand on its own, although there are references to events in previous books (such as the reason for Christina’s scar).
The epilogue also sets us up for Book 6 and Xan’s next adventures… and I can’t wait to see where he goes!
More about the Author
Antony Barone Kolenc retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps after 21 years of military service. He is a law professor who teaches courses on constitutional and military law and has been published in numerous journals and magazines. He speaks at legal, writing, and home education events and writes Catholic YA novels. He and his wife have raised five children and have three grandchildren.
Visit the Harwood Mysteries website for free literary, faith and book club companions for all four novels. Murder at Penwood Manor is available from Loyola Press, Amazon, and your favourite Catholic bookstore.