The Sanctuary Seeker – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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The first in a set of ten Bernard Knight books I purchased from “The Book People” quite a while ago has at last been taken down from the bookshelf and read.

It is the opener to Knight’s “Crowner John Mystery” series about Exeter based King’s Coroner Sir John de Wolfe.  Set at the end of the twelfth century this is the first medieval novel I’ve read for quite a while.  I overdosed on Bernard Cornwell’s a while back and decided I needed a break from the hard existence, the mud and the travelling to and fro but all that is certainly present and correct in Knight’s novel.

He has set up a good character here for a historical crime series and you can tell there’s certainly a lot of mileage in Crowner John (the other nine books on my shelves also tell me that, not to mention the other five which take the series up to 15 with a prequel to this novel 2012’s “Crowner’s Crusade” being the latest).  Whilst reading this I was reminded of another historical sleuth Gordanius The Finder in the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor, set in Ancient Rome which I must pick up on again.

In 1194 it was decreed that all counties should appoint coroners.  This caused conflict in areas between the existing law officials, the sheriffs, with duties being split between the two.  In Knight’s Devon circumstances have meant that John de Wolfe is the only crowner for the county and this professional tension is further notched up as the sheriff is his brother-in-law and there is no love lost between the two.  Home life is already strained by John’s relationship with his wife, the sheriff’s sister Matilda, which causes John to look elsewhere for comfort.

It did take me a while to get into this book and in common with a number of historical crime novels it is based around a number of set pieces on the legal practices of the time.  Here it is the ability of an accused person to seek sanctuary for forty days from a church; the process of “amercement” whereby a village can be fined for not following the legal powers granted to the coroner to the letter and, most memorably in this book, Trial by Ordeal.  This old practice was eventually abolished by the Pope some twenty years after this novel was set and here it is used to prove guilt.  It was a barbaric ritual where the accused would have to complete a task, which would likely lead to serious maiming or their death but may prove innocence, if for some reason the inevitable medical repercussions did not occur.  This is rather like the well-known treatment of witches in ducking stools where if they lived they were found guilty but if they drowned they were deemed blameless.  John is opposed to such practices which are still deemed to be worthy by the Church and his brother-in-law.

A body of a recently returned Crusader  is found in the village of Widecombe and Crowner John together with sidekick Cornishman Gwyn of Polruan and clerk Ralph, a defrocked priest are required to hold an inquest to ascertain responsibility for the death.  Bernard Knight was himself a Home Office pathologist who carried out thousands of autopsies so he is certainly writing what he knows. The historical aspect of his old job is obviously a passion and he certainly brings twelfth century Devon to life.  He had been writing novels since the early 60’s, a number as Bernard Picton, but it is from here onwards that he really begins to make his name.  This is a good, solid introduction to a historical crime mystery series.

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The Sanctuary Seeker was published in 2008 by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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Eeny Meeny – M J Arlidge (2014) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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TV writer/Executive Producer Matthew Arlidge made an impression at his first meeting with Penguin Books when he pitched seven titles of a new crime series.  They took him on board and must have then hoped for a big seller with his debut publication. This they got.  It was picked up as a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club title and established the author as one of the most exciting crime writers of the last few years and he has followed this title with to date another five featuring Detective Inspector Helen Grace.

I was three-quarters of the way through before I discovered M J was a male writer.  The use of initials and a female lead had me thinking Matthew might be a Melinda.  It should make no difference but I realised I quite like to know the gender of the writer whilst reading.  The autobiographical blurb in this debut is (deliberately?) gender-neutral. Is this some kind of marketing ploy?  Does it actually make a difference to crime fans?

Arlidge certainly packs a punch with this debut right from the start.  Helen Grace (a nod to Peter James’ Roy Grace perhaps?) has such a tough time with this case that it’s hard to see how the author will top this for her – surely every other case must be a breeze to solve after this one!

A female serial killer is abducting people in pairs and placing them in an abandoned building.  There’s a way out for one of them- kill the other.  Grace finds herself challenged professionally, through involvement with someone on her team and through leaked information as well as personally when she spots links between her and some of the victims.  The crimes are cruel and chilling which makes this an edgy and compelling police procedural.  Short chapters power the reader through the book.  It’s unpredictable but I did feel the twists running up to the end felt a little rushed.  There’s no doubt that M J Arlidge is a welcome, fresh addition to the crime book world and I’m looking forward to reading more.

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Eeny Meeny was published by Penguin in 2014.

Chickenfeed – Minette Walters (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the continuing aims of World Book Day/Night is to get reluctant readers immersed into the world of books.  Back in 2006 a set of “Quick Reads” were published in an initiative between publishing and other related industries.  Twelve popular authors were asked to produce short, fast-paced books to bring people back into reading and to encourage the emerging adult reader.  It was a highly successful enterprise which has been repeated in subsequent years.  Amongst this first batch of Quick Read authors were Val McDermid, John Francome, Ruth Rendell, Maeve Binchey and Minette Walters who was presented with the Readers’ Favourite Award for this short novel “Chickenfeed”.

I have read three earlier Walters novels, “The Breaker” (1998) which I really enjoyed, her 1993 breakthrough novel “The Sculptress” which I had more reservations about and “The Tinder Box” a novella from two years prior to “Chickenfeed”.  I’ve seen that book described as a “Chapbook”, I’m not sure what constitutes that in the 21st Century.

In “Chickenfeed” Walters fictionalises a real-life crime. It has a simple plot-line, understandably given its length and scope and much is given away in just a few lines on the back cover.  I like the surprise element of reading and often do not read back covers until I’ve finished the book and too big a reveal is the main reason why.

The murder took place in the 1920s on a chicken farm and it’s a tale of boy meets girl, girl has unrealistic expectations, boy wants to get rid of girl but she won’t take the hint- a universal life-lesson theme but here it ends in tragedy.

The most interesting and thought-provoking aspect can be found in the author’s notes at the back of the back where Walters doubts the established turn of events and gives a very valid reason why.  This challenges what has been assumed before and if I was a reader with limited recent experience of books I might just feel stimulated by this doubt raised and want to read more.  This book could very well be an entrée into crime fiction and true crime accounts.

By its very nature this is a slight book but well handled.  As I didn’t read the back cover I wasn’t sure how it was going to pan out or even who was going to be murdered.  I read it in under an hour, the largish clear print meant I could read it on the bus without my usual slightly nauseous feeling and it was certainly time well spent.  Just sometimes there’s a lot to be said for a “quick read”.

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Chickenfeed was published by Pan Books in 2006

A Clubbable Woman – Reginald Hill (1970) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Amazingly, this is my first introduction to Reginald Hill and his Yorkshire set Dalziel and Pascoe series.  An acclaimed BBC1 adaptation ran from 1996 to 2007 and starred Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as the two Police Officers likened in this first novel to Laurel and Hardy but I managed never to see a single episode.  Reginald Hill died in 2012.  He wrote 24 Dalziel and Pascoe novels over a period of 39 years (plus a couple of novellas) as well as his Joe Sixsmith novels and a considerable number of standalones under his own name and as Patrick Ruell, Dick Marland and Charles Underhill.  A prolific British writer and I’ve never read anything by him before. Shame on me.

I’m putting this right with the first of a set I purchased from The Book People at one of their too good to miss prices. It was first published in 1970 and it does feel like it.  Do you think crime novels date as well as other genres?  I’m not convinced and it’s often because of attitudes.  Firstly, the title made me feel as if I was a misogynist just by choosing to read it and I found myself carefully positioning it when reading it on the train to make sure people didn’t see it.  This is because of the implications I take from the title that some women deserve what they get and that there are those who can be deemed “clubbable”.

We are in Northern, male, working-class territory here with its rugby club setting and two rather unenlightened police officers.  The contrast between the two, DS Andrew Dalziel nicknamed “The Bruiser” by other members of the rugby club is very definitively of the “old school” of policing and the university educated Sergeant Peter Pascoe, represents the future as it was seen in 1970, anyway.  It’s not too far into the novel before you can appreciate that the tensions between the two would be ripe with future potential to last for a number of books.

Despite their differences, their views on women aren’t that far apart and that is representative of this part of society in the time the novel was written.  They both seem to see pick-up potential with women in inappropriate situations.  Hill has written a police procedural which flows well.  He does protect us somewhat as readers (we never get to know what was in an “obscene” letter sent to one of the characters.  I can’t imagine that many twenty-first century crime writers sparing our blushes).

The wife of a long-standing member of a rugby club is murdered and everyone becomes a suspect.  I didn’t see the twists coming but didn’t feel totally satisfied by the conclusion.  Characterisation is strong. I felt that even the minor characters felt real which suggests very good things for this series.  I don’t feel that this is going to be the strongest of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels but I can be a stickler for chronological order and despite misgivings when I picked up the book it really was the only place to start.

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A Clubbable Woman was published by Harper Collins in 1970.