My late mother may be described as an avid fan of this Crowner John series from Bernard Knight; she who read little crime fiction in her lattter years as it had become far too “gory” apparently. Crowner John was her exception and I now have the series in my hands.
Venturing into a pre-WWII setting is almost unknown for me, but when the delightful Karen at Eurocrime gave me the chance of reading this novel for that site, I thought I’d take the opportunity with haste. And let’s hear it for the Welsh: Bernard Knight, CBE is something of a paradox with his writing. Now retired from an outstanding career in forensic pathology that led to a Professorship at the University of Wales and all the current medical and technical knowledge that that holds, Knight creates a series set in the medieval period where cause of death is still being discovered.
Set in Exeter in the 12th century, the series features Crowner John who is the Coroner for the area, following a successful career in warfare, supporting Richard the Lionheart in his travels across Europe. In The Noble Outlaw, Crowner John has a case of murdered guildsmen to investigate as well as having to contend with some of the political shenanigans of the day and the reappearance of his brother-in-law’s ability to cause consternation all round. Life was not so very different in some ways, all those centuries ago…
In a nutshell: Crowner John is called out when the well-preserved body of a man is discovered in an Exeter building that is being converted into a school, at the direction and with the investment of his brother-in-law, Sir Richard de Revelle. Richard thinks someone is trying to jeopardise his chances of success in his educational endeavours and that the body was a plant. Another body is found later and another and Crowner John’s wife Matilda is also attacked, with the attacker making sure he voiced his opinion that a certain outlaw on Dartmoor was to blame for the deaths. However, the outlaw is a man of high repute following his experience in the wars and he was conveniently reported as dead by Richard and his cohort de Pomeroy when they took over his manor, throwing out his wife and his kinsmen. So we have two strands to the plot here: the nasty murders and the fate of the outlaw, who has surely been a victim of opportunistic greed. Crowner John has more than one mystery to solve…
New to this sub-genre of medieval mystery, what did I find good and compelling in this novel? The medieval setting, first and foremost. There is a great sense of accuracy when it comes to describing the setting and way of life at that time. Knight is rich and vivid in his descriptions of place, clothes worn, food eaten and prepared, the comforts (or lack of) in dwellings, the effects of the seasons (with this novel set in winter – such a hard time).
Characterisation is great too. John is an irrascible, sometimes very grumpy man in a marriage of convenience with Matilda, with both existing alongside one another like tectonic plates that rub occasionally. Both carve out their own lives with Matilda seeking the church as refuge (her penance perhaps?) and John seeking his mistress (Welsh, as it happens) called Nesta who presides over a local inn after some financial help from John in securing it, following the death of her husband.
Then comes the plot. This has nicely interwoven threads that raise more questions as the novel continues, until we enter the final dénouement when it all comes at a pace to the final resolution.
This is a splendid mystery novel that reflects its times. And how matters will be resolved remains a tense question until the bitter end.
A wonderful story and a great set of characters. It leaves me with the thought that I ought to spend more time reading historical crime, especially Knight’s.
Knight is listed as a participant at the forthcoming Crimefest 2008 which runs in Bristol from 5 to 8 June.