I’m having a bit of a tour around other medieval mystery writers at the moment – after Michael Jecks, we find Bernard Knight, author of mysteries set in late twelfth century Exeter. Crowner John is the newly appointed coroner, permanently at odds with the sheriff of the county, who also happens to be his brother-in-law. This is the first of an ongoing series of fourteen novels featuring John, his retainer Gwyn and his clerk Thomas.
This first book details the investigation into the death of a Crusader, found stabbed to death in a river near a small village. He is discovered to be a member of a local noble and influential family, starting a political struggle between John and the sheriff, who is more interested in a quick arrest and punishment. But when a second body, killed in a similar way, is found in the wilderness, the quick arrest that the sheriff has made seems to be a mistake. But as God has judged the accused to be guilty, can the real criminal be brought to justice?
Hmm… a book of two halves, this one. Let me explain.
It’s very well written. The characters seem real and three-dimensional, especially Crowner John. Atypically for the lead in such book, John isn’t perfect, particularly in his marriage. He has a number of mistresses, apparently, due to being trapped in a marriage of convenience. He doesn’t come across as particularly bright, either, as it seems to be Thomas, the deformed clerk, who gathers most of the crucial information. He is a man of his convictions, however, determined to punish the guilty and spare the innocent.
There are some lovely ideas here as well, all based on historical fact. The notion of trial by ordeal is horrific – in this case, the accused has to retrieve a stone from the bottom of a barrel of boiling water – if he does NOT get burns on his arm, then he is innocent. This leads to the problem of having someone proved divinely to be guilty…
However… as good a read as it is, the plot is mediocre, mystery-wise. We visit a number of crucial places for the crime, meet some people, revisit one and someone puts their foot in it. And then we get one of the things that always annoys me – the reveal of the killer (not remotely a surprise) and then a prolonged (60+ pages) sequence before we get to the end of the book, without any further surprises. Indeed, the title of the book relates to this part of the book, not the mystery…
Overall, certainly worth another look, but it doesn’t rank particularly highly as a mystery. Good read, though.