A Guide to Medieval Crime Fiction in Britain
Of all eras, there must be far more historical mysteries set in medieval times than in any other period of history, so this is never going to be comprehensive, but I've still got plenty of books and series for you to get your teeth into.
Probably the most famous historical detective series is the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, about a Benedictine monk in the 12th century who helps solve crimes. Cadfael is a great creation – he was a soldier and sailor for many years before becoming a monk, and brings a worldly knowledge usually lacking in religious orders. He strongly believes in justice, and his worldly knowledge is often called on to help investigate crimes, but his rebellious nature invariably brings him into conflict with his more doctrinaire brother monks. The books are all set in an eight-year period between 1137 and 1145, during a period of civil war in England as King Stephen and Empress Maud fought for the throne. The first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, came out in 1977, and the last one, Brother Cadfael’s Penance, came out in 1994. There were 20 novels in all, as well as three short stories, collected in A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael, which is set in 1120 and are about how Cadfael came to be a monk.
I think there’s something rather wonderful about the Brother Cadfael books; there’s a real flavour of history and a soft gentleness which you don’t find in many crime fiction series. All readers of historical mysteries owe something of a debt of gratitude to Brother Cadfael, as without these books popularising the genre, there would be a lot less historical crime fiction for us to read.
Sharon Kay Penman was an American author best known for sweeping historical fiction sagas including her Welsh Princes series and also the Plantagenet Series. These were generally very long novels full of diligently researched historical detail. She also wrote a series of historical mysteries however, the first of which was The Queen’s Man, featuring Justin de Quincy. The illegitimate son of a Bishop, de Quincy was as comfortable in the royal court as he was in a back street tavern, which made him perfect material to be the Queen’s man, the Queen in question being Eleanor of Aquitaine. In the first book, it is 1193 and Eleanor is sat on the throne of England, her beloved son Richard the Lionheart is missing, presumed dead, and it is rumoured that her younger son, John, is plotting to take the throne. A bloodstained letter from a dying man becomes de Quincy’s passport into the Queen’s favour, and soon he is pursuing a cunning murderer in the Queen’s name…
Anyone who reads a lot of recent crime fiction will be familiar with the idea of coroners playing a significant role in criminal investigations, but you’d mistaken if you thought that the role of coroner was a new one. In fact, the office of coroner was established by Richard the Lionheart in 1194, with a coroner in each county to look after the interest of the crown in criminal investigations. 1194 is exactly when the first book in author Bernard Knight’s ‘Crowner John’ series of mystery novels is set. In The Sanctuary Seeker, Sir John de Wolfe, recently returned from the Crusades, is appointed the first coroner for the county of Devon in South West England. He is soon called on to investigate the death of an unidentified body in a small moorland village. He is horrified to discover however that the Sheriff, his own brother-in-law, is seeking to thwart the investigation (a local sheriff that has an interest in an investigation is just the sort of conflict of interest that the office of Coroner was designed to ensure against). In total, there are 15 books in the Crowner John series.
Moving into the 13th century, we find ourselves in the small market town of Ludlow close to the border with Wales. Here we meet Stephen Attebrook, a crippled knight facing a life of poverty and ruin. He thinks it is going to be a quiet life when he takes up the job of assistant coroner, but he is soon plunged into a web of murder and intrigue in the first book of the series, The Wayward Apprentice. Author Jason Vail has written ten books in the series so far.
One of the most prolific authors of historic crime fiction I’ve come across is English writer Paul Doherty, though I honestly don’t know where he finds the time as since 1981 he’s also been Headmaster of a large and very well regarded London Secondary School. He’s written many different books and series ranging far and wide across time and place, but there are two in particular I’m interested in here. The first is the Hugh Corbett series, beginning with Satan in St Mary’s, which features Corbett, a lawyer and clerk from the Court of the King’s Bench. It is set in 1284, when Edward I is battling a traitorous movement founded by the late Simon De Montfort. There are 20 books in this series at the moment.
The second series of interest is The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, the first book of which is The Nightingale Gallery. It is set in a turbulent time in English history, 1376, after the Black Prince has died closely followed by his father, King Edward II, leaving the kingdom in the hands of a young boy, the future Richard II, who has to deal with the great nobles of the land gathering round the throne like hungry wolves seeking dinner. When one of London’s most powerful merchants is found dead, Coroner Sir John Cranston and his assistant, the Dominican monk Brother Athelstan, are sent to investigate. Just like the Hugh Corbett series, there’s 20 books to enjoy in this one too.
If we travel back a little earlier in the 14th century, we come to a former warrior monk, Sir Baldwin Furnshill, the last Knight Templar who along with Simon Puttock, bailiff of Lydford Castle, solve crimes. The first book in the series, The Last Templar, sees the pair investigating a dead body in a burnt-out cottage. This story is more of a humdrum affair than many of the later books in the series, which features squires, knights, bishops and other important folk, and the writing style shows a writer learning his craft, so even if you aren’t convinced by the first book, it’s worth reading some of the later ones; there’s 32 books in the series by Michael Jecks, so plenty to choose from!
Another historical mystery series, set not long after the Black Death had ravaged England, is the Owen Archer series by Candace Robb. This series features Owen, former Captain of Archers, now investigator, and are mostly set in and around the northern city of York. In the first book, The Apothecary Rose, Owen Archer is dispatched undercover to work as apprentice to York’s Apothecary, Nicholas Wilton, who authorities suspect is behind a recent spate of poisonings in the city, all linked to his herbal remedies. This is a strong start to a series of medieval mysteries that so far runs to twelve books.
This article is an edited extract from my book, The Crime Fiction Tour of Britain, which is available in Kindle and Paperback format from Amazon. Take a look now to find more medieval crime fiction, historical crime fiction from other eras and a tour of contemporary crime fiction in all regions of the UK. You also find out about the book on Goodreads here.