Between 1644 and 1647, Matthew Hopkins traveled through rural East Anglia killing hundreds of people. We don’t see him on the lists of history’s most prolific serial killers because his killings were officially sanctioned and quite legal. Hopkins was a witch-finder; he would be called into a town or a village to investigate, then let the town execute the accused. Beth Underdown invents a sibling to serve as a witness to Hopkin’s spree in The Witchfinder’s Sister. Through the fictional Alice’s eyes, we learn what might have led the historical man to not only investigate witchcraft but also write a manual to finding witches that was used during the Salem Witch Trials a few decades later.
Alice has lived apart from her family since her marriage. Now that she’s a widow, she has little choice but to return to her hometown and live with her brother. When she arrives, she soon learns that Matthew has become a witch-finder. He’s often gone, performing cruel examinations on women who’ve been accused and thoroughly documenting every “imp” and torture-induced confession. From Alice’s perspective, it’s clear that the accused are women someone more connected has a problem with. They’re older and don’t have a protector to keep them from the gallows.
Though Alice tries to hold herself aloof from Matthew’s new trade, she gets pulled in on the side of some of the accused women, who are friends of a family friend. The family friend has information about Matthew’s past that Alice wants, but Alice isn’t very good at trying to dissuade the obsessive witch-finder. The book gets downright grim when Matthew presses Alice into service as his assistant. When that happens, we get a front row seat at one of history’s great crimes, right up until the inevitable reckoning.
I was interested enough in the plot and setting to keep going, but I can’t help but think that using an invented sibling to tell an actual historical story is a dodge. Historical fiction is full of narrators who have curiously modern attitudes towards things like witchcraft or racism. We can easily relate to these narrators, because they think like us. But it also leaves us a step removed from the events of the plot. We never get close enough to really understand what might cause an entire town to start accusing its own of communing with the devil or justifying slavery, etc. This kind of dodge avoids the lesson that good historical fiction can impart to its readers.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is not a bad book, but I think this book would have been more effective if Underdown had tried to put us into Matthew Hopkins’ head. His life is just documented enough for a novel to feel real, but with enough gaps in it to permit literary license. If we were able to get into Hopkin’s head, this could have been an incredible tale of historical horror.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 25 April 2017.