Crime fiction (and its best known subcategory, the murder mystery) is one thing; historical fiction with its meticulously researched re-creation of a time period is another. These genres have often been married, with various results. Usually one form or the other dominates, as historical does in Bruce Holsinger’s The Invention of Fire.

But I don’t mean that as a criticism. Holsinger has spent most of his professional life teaching medieval literature at the University of Virginia. He has won big academic awards from the Modern Language Association and the Guggenheim Foundation. He knows the language, literature, politics, and intrigues of late fourteenth-century England as well as he knows anything. But, as he tells us in a note to his first medieval novel, A Burnable Book, he was confronted with “my own ignorance about much of medieval life. After half a career spent studying and teaching the literature of the Middle Ages, I found it something of a surprise to realize I couldn’t answer a simple question posed by my younger son: ‘Did they have forks?'” Now he knows the answer.

He learned it while he tried to re-create the world of late fourteenth-century London in his novels. The protagonist of these books is John Gower, poet and friend of Chaucer’s. Gower was real (although I’ve never been able to read his poetry, and it doesn’t seem as if many other English majors have either), but we know little about him. That lack of information has allowed Holsinger the room to make Gower his collector of secrets, the man who gathers the gossip all poets love and turns it into information and power. Those secrets can have consequences that last through the centuries.

In The Invention of Fire, the sequel to A Burnable Book, Gower is sucked into the investigation of the massacre of sixteen unknown men, whose bodies have been dumped into London’s public privy. They have been killed in some new and troubling way; Gower suspects the deed was done by a new, barely rumored device known as the “handgonne.” As Gower chases these new guns through London and beyond, we are drawn into the political intrigues that threatened the reign of Richard II.

There were also medieval inventions that did not simply destroy. Gower’s eyes are going bad, and he is given a device made of “two circles of glass, each within a leaden teardrop, with the narrow ends of the oblong shapes hinged together in the middle.” He can read again with his new glasses, and the regained ability reduces him to tears. They also allow him to solve his case and see the people who move through his city. He introduces us to pickpockets, teamsters, dukes, blacksmiths, privy counselors, and prostitutes; we walk the streets and smell the odors of that packed and dirty place.

Bruce Holsinger loves the texture of this time and dwells on its exquisite details with the lavish attention of a costume designer for Downton Abbey. Although his plot is a good one, the great pleasure of this book is in those rich details of the period.

Holsinger reads from his new book at Literati on May 13.