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September 08, 1996|CHARLES SOLOMON

MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth (Norton: $11, 206 pp.). Set in 14th century England, Unsworth's best-selling novel follows the misadventures of the backsliding priest Nicholas Barber. After fleeing his diocese, Barber compounds his ecclesiastical crime by joining a roving troupe of actors. On their way to Durham, they visit a small town shaken by a recent murder. When the charismatic leader of the troupe decides to stage a play based on the crime, dark truths about the town and its feudal lord emerge. Although Unsworth lacks the grasp of the medieval mind that distinguished Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," his characters ring true, and the result is vastly superior to the average whodunit.

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