Book Reviewshistorical fiction

Review: Crowner John series

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.

La puerta
One of the locations in the Crowner John series.
Commons Licence. Image orginated by Juan J. Martínez

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.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

5 thoughts on “Review: Crowner John series

  • Pingback: Clearing the review backlog: Three short reviews | BookerTalk

  • nathan3651

    Are the crowned John books independent or do you have to read them in order?

    • I don’t think you need to read them in any order Nathan. You very quickly get to understand some of the elements which run through all of them. For example that he has an ongoing battle with his brother in law

  • I have actually read a few of this series – then got fed up with the sameness of them – but I remember them quite fondly and may go back to the series one day.

    • I enjoyed the first three but like you felt that it was getting rather repetitive by the time I finished the fourth. So I doubt I’ll read any more. He’s written a different series about a private practice pathologist based in Wales but they are not very good.


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