As I mentioned yesterday, The Elixir of Death by Bernard Knight was a delightful read and I’m now including the Crowner John Mysteries in the medieval series I look for whenever I’m out browsing for books.
This is a well-written, complex plot but all the threads draw back together by the end and, for the most part, justice is seen to be done. Knight’s characters are well thought out and interesting with lots of well-researched details that add much to the story. Crowner John de Wolfe is a tall knight, coroner for the area surrounding Exeter, in a loveless, arranged marriage with the devout Matilda de Revelle. Her brother, Richard de Revelle has lost his position as sheriff, his disgrace mainly due to John discovering not only his support for Prince John but evidence of extortion and embezzlement. To complicate matters, one of the first dead bodies discovered is the husband of a young Saxon lady, Hilda, whom John loved in his youth and might have married had he not been a noble and she a villein, daughter of the reeve of one of John’s family manors.
John’s clerk, Thomas, is a priest and scholar devoted to the church despite the fact that it has ejected him from the priesthood over a malicious and false accusation which has caused him to live in disgrace for 3 years and he would have starved had not his uncle, the archdeacon of the Exeter cathedral, found him the post as clerk to John. With his acceptance back into the fold, Thomas could work full time for the church but instead chooses to take on tasks that give him enough flexibility that he can continue to clerk for Sir John, showing admirable loyalty.
Sir John also is accompanied everywhere in his work by his bodyguard, a “huge, dishevelled Cornishman” called Gwyn of Polruan. Both he and Sir John have fought in the Irish war and the Holy Land and are seasoned warriors. The new sheriff, rather, the retired sheriff reinstated, is Henry de Furnellis, who is content to stay out of Sir John’s way and let him carry out his own investigations. However, he has information of spies in England sent from King Philip of France to help Prince John, the Count of Mortain, in his attempt to usurp his brother’s throne.
The story begins with Sir John, Thomas, and Gwyn having been summoned to the coast to view a shipwreck and 3 corpses. It’s foul, late fall weather and the coroner and his men are not in good humour, especially when they realize that the dead men are known to them. The wounds seem to be caused by an unusual kind of blade than is generally found in England. More like a Moorish knife — wide and curved at the end. The cargo has not been touched and there is evidence of there having being passengers on board the trading vessel. Then the sons of Crusaders from the 2nd Crusade and their sons start to die in gruesome, mock-Christian fashion and the confusion begins. Are all these deaths related? Or are they simply individual acts of opportunity?
The alchemist, Alexander of Leith, wonders what he has let himself in for when he enters the ruins of the old castle at Bigbury. The other alchemist he was hired to work with, a Moor, Alexander is pretty sure is a fraud, and his assistants are fearsome creatures he wants nothing to do with. The three fearsome Moors disappear half the time and even when they are there, they seem to be drugged and sluggish in some way. The French spy overseeing the project, trusts them less and less. Then the ruffian guards posted to keep people away bring them a woman found wandering in the forest.
The story is great — full of suspense, great descriptions, and intense action. The characterizations are larger than life. If you like medieval mysteries or are thinking of reading one for the first time, this would be a good place to start. It doesn’t take place in a monastery like the Brother Cadfael mysteries or the Brother Matthew Bartholomew series so it brings a different perspective to the times. The glossary and maps help to give a firm grip on what’s happening and where events are in relation to each other. I’m looking forward to my next Crowner John episode. * * * *