Saturday, August 4, 2018

Bernard Knight, The Sanctuary Seeker

Bernard Knight, The Sanctuary Seeker
Copyright © 1998 Bernard Knight
Pocket Books (Great Britain, 1998)
eISBN  13-978-1-4483-0123-2

The first of 15 books featuring Sir John de Wolfe, the recently appointed coroner for the county Devonshire (Exeter is the main city), his two primary assistants, Gywn (like deWolfe, a former crusader) and Thomas (a defrocked priest, who serves as John’s scribe).  Among the other continuing characters are his wife Matilda; her brother sir Richard de Revelle; the de Wolfe’s maid Mary; and a tavern keeper (who is also deWolfe’s lover).  It’s nearly the end of the 1100s, and Richard the Lionheart is in captivity on the continent.  And, in England, a new layer of governance and law enforcement has recently been added.  In addition to the Sheriff (de Revelle in Devon), each county now has a coroner.  The lines of authority are not clear, which of course will lead to conflict.

As the story opens, de Wolfe, Gwyn, and Thomas are arriving at the village of Widecombe, where a body has been discovered in a stream.  One of the coroner’s tasks is to hold an inquest on the dead, especially when, as in this case, there is evidence of murder.  The coroner’s jury consists of all males age 12 and over who can be assembled in the village.  In this case, there is a particularly interesting circumstance—the dead man appears to be Norman, not Saxon or English, making the inquiry into his death rather more important than is usually the case.  De Wolfe holds the inquest, assembles some evidence of where and how the deceased was slain, and returns to Exeter. 

DeWolfes relations with his wife are strained, and, as he is loyal to King Richard, de Revelle has thrown in with Prince John.  So there are political ramifications to everything that happens.  The investigation into the murder does not progress rapidly.  There is the issue of who the deceased is and how his body came to be found in a small stream miles from anywhere.  That the man was Norman complicates things even more.  De Revelle is all for finding someone—anyone--guilty, hanging him, and moving on.  De Wolfe, however, intends to find out, if possible, what has actually happened.

I found the characters well developed, the settings and the situations plausible, and the nature of the investigation nicely done.  The story moves fairly slowly in parts, to some extent because Knight piles on a lot of back story for the main characters.  And, for my taste, we get more description of the attire of the characters than seems absolutely necessary.  (An aside, because this is a bit funny.  One of the characters is described as wearing his hose “cross-gartered,” a style of dress I first encountered in Twelfth Night, when Malvolio believed that Olivia has commanded him to appear before her “cross-gartered.”  Presumably a style of dress that was apparently fashionable around 1200 has become an occasion for scorn 400 years later.  You can see what it looks like here:

I wound up with mixed feelings about the story.  The mystery itself was nicely handled, and the final scenes, although they were somewhat dragged out, provided a satisfactory ending to the book.  I’ll probably read at least one more book in the series.  I hope, however, that it has less of what seemed to me, in this book, to be filler.

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