How do you judge the size of the knife used to kill the man whose body you’ve just found face down in a haystack? Today’s investigators have an easy task of it with oodles of NCIS-style gizmos at their disposal. But for their twelfth-century predecessors, detection was rather more of a hands-on affair − you simply stuck your thumb in the wound to see how deep you could go. It’s a bit messy clearly and you have to also put up with the rather to the sickening sucking sound made when you pull your thumb out again.
This insight— and many others — into life in England under King Richard (aka The Lionheart) is the main appeal of the Crowner John series of books by Bernard Knight. Knight is a qualified barrister and was one of the foremost pathologists in the UK during the 1970s and 80s, the man involved in many of the high profile cases of those decades from and was involved in many high profile cases such as Fred and Rose West, and the child killer, Mary Bell.which means the detection elements of his novels are firmly grounded in reality.
In Crowner John (the title of Crowner is the origin of the modern day term Coroner), Knight has created a compelling character of Sir John de Wolfe. Wolfe is a former crusader who is now the Keeper of the Pleas of the King’s Crown, based in the city of Exeter with a remit to investigate suspicious deaths and hold inquests. He presents a foreboding figure as he strides through Exeter dressed in his habitual black or grey and with a persistent scowl on his face.
He has plenty to scowl about: his wife is fat and ugly and her brother the Sheriff (who is also supposed to keep law and order locally) is not only lazy and greedy, he’s probably corrupt. Little wonder therefore that John seeks solace in the arms of a local inn keeper and in the close companionship of his clerk and his retainer.
I’ve read or listened to four of the 15 novels in the series – most recently The Figure of Hate published in 2005 in which Crowner John investigates the murder of a local manor lord and his son. The plot is ok but it’s the window Knight shines on the daily life and practices of the twelfth century that provide the most fascinating for me. This is world in which very few people beyond the clergy could read or write (even Sir John struggles through Latin lessons); where beds were extremely rare and beer was a much safer drink than water. In The Figure of Hate, we get some interesting background on the origin of the jousting tournament, the weaponry and and a good sense of just how fit the jousting men must have been to fight in heavy protective armour astride a fast moving horse.
Dont expect any great literary flair in the writing style. That’s not Knight’s forte. In fact he can be overly repetitive with some detail (we get told at least four times in The Figure of Hate that John and his mistress innkeeper whisper their sweet nothings in the Welsh language). The Crowner John series isn’t anywhere as good as C J Sansom’s Shardlake series but they are an entertaining read nevertheless.