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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, March 18, 2001

Medeival Backdrop Makes for Intriguing Mysteries

One of the most popular settings for historical mysteries is the Middle Ages. The period provides a uniquely colorful backdrop for criminal intrigue.

Ladies and lords travel with their retinue of knights for protection from bandits, their faithful dogs leading the way to their castle, where they are met by a team of servants. That night they sit down to a sumptuous feast and are entertained by jesters and minstrels. They may have returned home in time for the feast day of a saint, for the influence of the church pervades all of society. Even the time of day is set by the monastic schedule.

Law enforcement is in the hands of a coroner or sheriff, and trials are speedy. Because these officials are often corrupt, the detective in medieval mysteries is often an amateur.

The really good authors of this genre are steeped in the history of the period. So if you want to take a trip back in time to when knighthood was in flower, check out the profusion of medieval mysteries that are now available.

The Wildcats of Exeter by Edward Marston (St. Martin's, 2001).

The wildcats of the title refer both to the women who lay claim to the lands of the murdered Nicholas Picard and to the animal that is an accomplice in the crime.

Marston bases his mysteries on entries in the Domesday Books. His detectives are soldier Ralph Delchard and lawyer Gervase Bret, commissioners for the king who settle land disputes. Ralph is an irreverent, happily married man of action, while Gervase is betrothed and more methodical in his crime solving. All mystery fans will enjoy this work by a master of the genre.

The Traitor of St. Giles by Michael Jecks (Headline, 2000).

This is more than a good mystery. It is a good historical novel as well.

Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the King's Peace, is another blissfully married detective. He loves his dogs and is a former Knight Templar. Sir Baldwin is aided in his investigations by Bailiff Simon Puttock.

During a politically unstable time, Sir Baldwin and Simon are called to the castle of Lord Hugh for a political counsel. During their visit, two murders occur, and the duo take it upon themselves to solve the crimes.

This novel teems with life, is very authentic and makes terrific reading.

The Brothers of Glastonbury by Kate Sedley (St. Martin's, 2001).

Sedley's detective is Roger the Chapman, a nomadic peddler and former monk. Roger has a gift for solving crimes, but when his grateful clients try to offer him a living in their households, he declines in favor of the freedom of the road. All he needs is the pack on his back and a cudgel in his hand. His life is simple but his crime solving is a dangerous business.

Roger believes that God calls him to solve particular crimes. Against a backdrop of Arthurian and Christian legend, this case involves the disappearance of two brothers. The suspicious townsfolk believe they were swept away by the devil.

Roger discovers that their vanishing involves a parchment with directions to the whereabouts of a hidden relic, believed to be the Holy Grail itself.

To Wear a White Cloak by Sharan Newman (Tom Doherty, 2000).

Set in 12th- century Paris at the start of the Second Crusade, this is the seventh in a chronological series of Catherine LeVendeur mysteries.

Catherine is the enterprising and quick-witted wife of a young nobleman who has been forced to stoop to trade to earn a living. In the course of their daily lives, they interact with a cast of characters representing the various social classes and religious groups of the time.

Catherine's current challenge is to unravel the puzzle of a Knight Templar's corpse left in their boarded-up house. At the same time, she must prevent her father, who has just reverted to Judaism from his adopted Christianity, from being drawn and quartered for heresy. Catherine, a former nun herself, is up to the challenge.

My wife, Pam, liked this one, and she usually doesn't read historical mysteries.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.