Historical Crime Fiction Guide - Part One: Ancient & Medieval Britain
I wanted to write a guide to historical crime fiction but, realising it would be too big a topic for one article, decided to split it in two: part one about British historical crime fiction, and part two about historical crime fiction from elsewhere. At first this, seems to be a rather uneven split, stories about one small country compared to the rest of the big, wide world, however from where I'm sitting a rather large proportion of the historical crime fiction published in English is set in Britain. This first part also complements my earlier, two-part Crime Fiction Tour of Britain.
Rather than ordering this geographically, it makes a lot more sense to put it in some sort of rough chronological order, and this is what I have at least attempted to do, though I give myself leave to deviate in small ways from that if it makes sense to. As I started writing though I realised that even sticking to historical crime fiction set in Britain was a huge topic, so this is going to be another two parter. This first part will cover ancient and medieval history, and the second article will take it from there.
One final point to note that this is historical crime fiction. Let’s face it, there are crimes of one sort or another in most books, especially historical fiction – books would be much more boring without some wrongdoing – but here I'm looking at what would be commonly classified in a bookshop as crime, usually with some sort of detective or investigator attempting to uncover the crime. I've also given greater emphasis to books that are part of a series featuring one or more of the same character, usually the investigator, but do from time to time mention exceptional stand-alone novels.
So, without further ado, let us start our time travelling journey.
I am including everything before the medieval era in 'Ancient History' for the simple reason that there isn't a lot of it, not when it comes to crime fiction anyway. However, scraping the barrel a little, I've come up with the following.
Marcus Didius Falco series – This is a long and quite popular series of crime/detective novels set in ancient Rome, featuring Roman investigator Marcus Didius Falco. The books are set in Rome and various other parts of the Roman Empire, including some which are partially set in Britain:
The Silver Pigs – This is the first novel in the series, set in AD 70-71, and Falco is introduced in Rome before making a trip to Britain.
A Body in the Bath House – The 13th book in the series, this is set in Rome and Britain in AD75
The Jupiter Myth – This is the 14th book in the series. It follows on from the previous book and is set in Britain in AD 75.
Fast forward a few years, and we come to the Sister Fidelma mysteries, a series of historical mystery novels by author Peter Tremayne (real name Peter Berresford Ellis). They're set in the mid-late 7th century, mainly in Ireland but also partly in Britain. The first novel in the series is Absolution by Murder, and so far, there have been 30 books in the series. Tremayne has also written An Ensuing Evil and Others: Fourteen Historical Mysteries, which collects together his shorter works set in Britain and Ireland from the 7th century onwards, including stories featuring Macbeth and Sherlock Holmes (not in the same story, I hasten to add!).
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.
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 (so far).
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. See what I mean about where the author finds the time?
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 so far in the series, so plenty to choose from!
As we progress through the middle ages, we get to the mid-14th century and that horrible scourge of the time: The Black Death. Against this backdrop, we are introduced to Matthew Bartholomew, a highly intelligent physician and teacher of medicine at Cambridge University. In the first in series of books by Susanna Gregory, A Plague on Both Your Houses, the Master of Michaelhouse, Sir John Babington, is found dead and the university authorities don’t want his death investigated. Luckily, Bartholomew is on hand, determined to uncover the truth (and as it happens, more bodies), and he continues to do this in more than 20 books, as England tries to recover from the Black Death. The Matthew Bartholomew novels have a lot in common with the Brother Cadfael stories, but they are quite a lot darker and don’t shy away from the harsh realities of life in the middle ages – these are no cosy mysteries.
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.
As we’re coming to the end of the middle ages, I’ll leave it there, and we’ll reconvene in part two for more historical mysteries.