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Medieval Murder short stories

The Tainted Relic by The Medieval Murderers, isbn #9781416502135, 502 pages, softcover, Pocket Books, $8.99

The Medieval Murderers, at least in this first anthology, are Simon Beaufort, Bernard Knight, Ian Morson, Michael Jecks, Susanna Gregory, and Philip Gooden.  There are several anthologies under the "MM" banner, and the roster of writers changes (or so I've been told).

The concept of the series is that the novellas in each volume track one object (in this case, a piece of the True Cross stained with Christ's blood and under a curse laid down by the last of a family line of defenders killed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Crusaders) as that object makes its way through the medieval era.  The novellas feature the medieval detectives the authors are most closely connected with.  And, a major point in the book's favor:  whether the curse on the relic is true or not, all of the deaths have logical human causes / perpetrators.  Those characters who are so inclined believe in the curse, but just as many don't believe and die anyway.

The first novella gives us the origin of the relic and its curse ("whoever handles the relic will die once they give it up"), through the eyes of Simon Beaufort's Sir Geoffrey Mappestone.  It's the shortest of the novellas (or at least is tied for that honor), almost by necessity -- that relic needs to get moving towards England and later parts of the medieval period.  Still, Sir Geoffrey is an interesting character I'd like to read more of.

The second novella, by Bernard Knight, brings us to Exeter in the late 1100s, where the relic crosses the path of the first Coroner of Devon, Crowner John.  Another interesting character, along with his sidekicks (a burly Celt and a defrocked priest).  The mystery develops satisfyingly, with several linked deaths that lead Crowner John towards the culprit.  There's also a bit of John's personal life involved because at least one of the murders is connected to his mistress.  The personal drama aspects actually made the story more enjoyable.

The third novella comes to us from the pen of Ian Morson and the action moves to Oxford as academic-turned-detective William Falconer becomes embroiled in the rivalry between two different religious institutions courting pilgrims.  This one reminded me quite a bit of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" in style and mood.  Falconer, as a teacher rather than as a religious man, is able to put together the clues for a string of murders that individually look like accidents in a way an abbey-dwelling detective might not.

Fourth, we come to Michael Jecks, the one author in the batch that I'd heard of before (someone recently gave me the first book in his "Templar Knight mysteries" but I have yet to read it).  This is the weakest story in the collection.  While his detectives, Sir Baldwin Furnshill (the last Templar) and Simon Puttock, are interesting, the mystery and its conclusion were dissatisfying.  It's the only story in the collection that falls into the TV Mystery trope of the culprit revealing themselves when cornered -- except that in this story, the culprit puts the pieces together for us in his own mind and then dies, ensuring that even Sir Baldwin never really knows if his theory is correct or not.   Very dissatisfying.

The fifth story moves the action to Cambridge in the 1300s, with Susannah Gregory's physician/teacher Matthew Bartholomew and his friend Brother Michael, the Senior Proctor of Cambridge, dealing with the deaths of rival Friars during a time when the validity of Holy Blood Relics was hotly contested between the Dominicans and the Franciscans.  This is the longest story in the book, but doesn't feel it.  It requires some concentration to keep track of which set of monks feels Holy Blood Relics should be honored and which feel they should be destroyed, as well as keeping track of which Friars wear what color robes and which Order characters say they belong to.  There are a lot of twists, turns, and suspect allegiances in this one.  Very satisfying.

Finally, Philip Gooden gives us a slightly more light-hearted tale starring three minor Players from William Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.  A shorter story, if not the shortest in the book then close to it, with a fun first-person narration (the only such in the book).

I know there are several more books in this series, and I look forward to reading them, as well as seeking out the novel length adventures of at least two, if not three, of the detectives featured herein.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 26th, 2008 08:59 am (UTC)
I do like the sound of this one, will check in the library this morning to see if they have it. I could always skim the Michael Jecks one. Are all the detectives in books of their own? I like the sound of the Bernard Knight one so will check that out too.
Mar. 26th, 2008 12:59 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure about the Philip Gooden characters, but all of the other detectives have their own series, and I believe all are featured in the second "Medieval Murderers" book which I will be looking for soon.
Mar. 26th, 2008 02:03 pm (UTC)
Well, The Tainted Relic turned out to be in just about every library in Devon except mine! Typical. So I checked out Bernard Knight's books here:


and discovered that there are 12 'Crowner John' books. My library had book 7 and book 11. The first one is The Sanctuary Keeper and it was booked out so I'll keep and eye for out that one another time. They look very good.

There was also a link to the Medieval Murders books here:

Mar. 26th, 2008 03:17 pm (UTC)
I did a search and found a list of British Historical Mysteries that is not quite current but has everyone from Fidelma and Cadfael to Jecks' characters on it. I printed it and promptly lost the link. Bah.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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