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Literature / The Crowner John Mysteries

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The Crowner John Mysteries are a series of novels by Bernard Knight following the fictional life of Sir John de Wolfe, a former Crusading knight appointed to the office of Keeper of the Pleas of the King's Crown, i.e. the King's Crowner or Coroner, for the county of Devon.

As Crowner, Sir John has to investigate all sudden deaths, murders, rapes, assaults, fires, wrecks and catches of royal fish, as well as trying to drive as much custom as possible into the royal courts, instead of the old manor and shire courts. John has a large area to administrate there are supposed to be three crowners for Devon but he is the only one. In all this, he is assisted by Gwyn, his old Cornish retainer and Thomas de Peyne, an unfrocked priest, who is his clerk. John's surly social-climbing wife Matilda is the sister of the sheriff of Exeter, Sir Richard de Revelle, who does all he can to make life difficult for John, who seeks solace in the arms of his Welsh mistress Nesta, the landlady of the Bush Inn in the city.

The novels in the series are:

  1. The Sanctuary Seeker (1998), set in November 1194
  2. The Poisoned Chalice (1998), set in December 1194
  3. Crowner's Quest (1999), set in Christmas 1194
  4. The Awful Secret (2000), set in March 1195
  5. The Tinner's Corpse (2001), set in April 1195
  6. The Grim Reaper (2002), set in May 1195
  7. Fear In The Forest (2003), set in June 1195
  8. The Witch Hunter (2004), set in August 1195
  9. Figure of Hate (2005), set in October 1195
  10. The Elixir of Death (2006), set in November 1195
  11. The Noble Outlaw (2007), set in December 1195
  12. The Manor of Death (2008), set in April 1196
  13. Crowner Royal (2009), set in Summer 1196
  14. A Plague of Heretics (2010), set in November 1196
  15. Crowner's Crusade (2012) actually a prequel to the series, taking place chronologically before The Sanctuary Seeker

Tropes found in the series include:

  • Ambition Is Evil: The Fatal Flaw of Sir Richard de Revelle, the Sheriff of Devon, is overweening ambition. His belief that he is entitled to (and destined for) greater things leads him to join rebellions against King Richard, only to have to hurriedly backpedal (and find some way to cover his tracks) when the rebellions fail.
  • Awful Wedded Life: The marriage between John and Matilda is a bitter and loveless one. It was a political marriage arranged by their parents that neither really wanted. John deals with it by being away from home as much as possible, first by going soldiering in Europe and then joining the Crusade, and later by spending as much time out in the field doing his job as coroner as he can.
  • Buried Treasure: The search for a buried Saxon hoard forms a major subplot in Crowner's Quest as, by law, all buried treasure belongs to the Crown and one of John's duties as coroner is to secure it.
  • Contract on the Hitman: In The Sanctuary Seeker, the killer hires an outlaw to help him murder the first of his targets. He then immediately kills the outlaw, takes back the money he paid him, and dumps the outlaw's body down an old tin mine.
  • Dirty Old Monk: Thomas is a cripple who used to be a priest as his deformities left him no real career opportunities except the Church. However, his weakness for the sins of the flesh got him defrocked after an attempted liaison with the daughter of a noble. Now a mere clerk, he continues to lech after pretty women but without success.
  • False Rape Accusation: In Crowner's Quest, the conspirators accuse John of rape as part of a Frame-Up to get him hanged.
  • Frame-Up: In Crowner's Quest, the conspirators attempt to frame John for rape in order to get him executed.
  • Glove Slap: In Crowner's Quest, John slaps Jocelin da Braose is the face with a glove when issuing him with a challenge to a trial by combat.
  • The Grand Hunt: A grand hunt occurs in Crowner's Quest, where the conspirators arrange a Hunting "Accident" to eliminate one of the nobles who refuses to join their rebellion. Sir John quickly determines that the 'accident' is actually murder.
  • Hunting "Accident": In Crowner's Quest, one of the victims is a Norman nobleman killed during a hunt. Having first lamed the horse of the reeve who was accompanying him to ensure that he would be alone, the murderer hits the noble over the head and then breaks his neck to make it look like he died in a fall from his horse after striking his head on a branch.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: In The Sanctuary Seeker, a suspect gives himself away when he says he has never heard of the victim Aelfgar of Totnes. John had said the victim was named Aelfgar, but not that he came from Totnes.
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Sir John is a knight and returned Crusader. His two sidekicks are a foot soldier turned bodyguard, and a defrocked monk turned clerk. All three of them possess useful skills in solving crimes.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Extracting confessions by torture is allowed by the law and the Sheriff never hesitates to use it (at least against those who do not have powerful connections). John himself believes that torture if barbaric and that a confession obtained through torture holds no veracity. However, he is not above allow his assistant Gwyn extract information through physical force (such as thrusting a squire's head into a frozen horse trough) if he thinks the situation warrants it.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: There is constant tension between John and his brother-in-law the Sheriff over who actually has jurisdiction over a particular crime. It gets worse when the crime involves the Church, and so might fall under the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Court.
  • Justice by Other Legal Means: In Crowner's Quest, John realises there is little chance of his actually bringing the two murderers to trial. So he instead takes another legal option and challenges the knight to trial by combat, acting as the champion of the 13 year old son of one of their victims.
  • Kangaroo Court: After being framed for rape in Crowner's Quest, John is dragged before the Sheriff's Court. As the Sheriff is a co-conspirator of the those responsible for the Frame-Up, a guilty verdict and a swift execution is a forgone conclusion. However, a most unexpected witness appears to save John's bacon.
  • Knight, Knave, and Squire: The central trio of the novels are Sir John, a knight who cleaves as close to the ideals of chivalry as circumstances allow; Gwyn, his bodyguard and a commoner with a far more flexible set of ethics; and Thomas, the non-combatant clerk, who is a coward and a man of letters.
  • Never Learned to Read: At the start of the series, Sir John—like many of his class—is illiterate. He is embarrassed by this, especially as his main rival (and brother-in-law) the Sheriff of Exeter is literate. Over the course the books, John takes lessons form his clerk Thomas to become literate.
  • Never Suicide: In Crowner's Quest, John is called in to investigate the death of a priest who hanged himself in the privy. John becomes suspicious when he notices that the short priest should not have been able to reach the beam he was found hanging from. He then finds ligature marks on the priest's neck that indicate he was strangled before being strung up.
  • Public Execution: Public executions are a twice-weekly event in Exeter. As Coroner, John is required to attend them.
  • Salvage Pirates: The novels are set in Devon and Cornwall, where the coastal villages have a tradition of salvaging whatever they can from shipwrecks. As any salvage legally belongs to the Crown, many of the villages will fail to declare the shipwreck to the proper authority (the Coroner), and hide any signs of the wreck. In some extreme cases, they will murder any survivors of the wreck so there is no one to report what happened.
  • Seeking Sanctuary: Being set in the Middle Ages in the cathedral town of Exeter, the series contains multiple examples of people attempting to use the actual law and seek sanctuary from their crimes in the church. The first novel even takes it title from the tradition: The Sanctuary Seeker.
  • Sexless Marriage: At the start of their marriage, John and Matilda attempted to have children, but this only resulted in miscarriages. Since then, they have not slept together (more-or-less by mutual agreement). John deals with his urges by having a string of mistresses scattered across the county, while Matilda concentrates on her ruthless social climbing.
  • Shovel Strike: In Crowner's Quest, John and Gwyn get the drop on a group of men; two of whom are in a hole. One of the men in the hole uses his shovel to knock Gwyn's legs out from under him. He then spends the rest of the fight trying to kill Gwyn with the shovel.
  • Torture Is Ineffective: John's personal belief is that a confession extracted by torture has no veracity and prefers to find proof. However, he is not above using the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique if time is short and the situation is dire.
  • Translation Convention: Knight is upfront in acknowledging in his forewords that novels use a translation convention: explaining that the languages spoken in Exeter at the time would have been a mix of Norman French, Middle English, medieval Latin and Cornish, none of which would be comprehensible to a modern English speaker.
  • Trial by Combat: This is an option available to the nobility in the period when the books are set. In Crowner's Quest, John uses this to obtain Justice by Other Legal Means by acting as champion to a 13 year old boy whose father had been murdered.
  • Trial by Ordeal: Option available in certain circumstances. John himself regards it as a farce that doesn't prove anything.
  • Twisted Christmas: Crowner's Quest starts with John being called away from a Christmas party being thrown by his wife to investigate an apparent suicide. So John spends Christmas Eve examining the body an elderly priest hanging a stinking privy. This leads into a very bad Christmas and New Year for John.
  • Unwanted Spouse: The marriage between John and Matilda is a bitter and loveless one. It was a political marriage arranged by their parents that neither really wanted. John deals with it by being away from home as much as possible, first by going soldiering in Europe and then joining the Crusade, and later by spending as much time out in the field doing his job as coroner as he can, and by taking mistresses. Matilda focuses her energy and ambition into relentless social climbing.
  • Wardens Are Evil: Stigand - the jailer at Roguemont Castle - is universally known and reviled as being a sadistic bastard.
  • Water Torture: In Crowner's Quest, John extracts the information he needs from a squire by having Gwyn repeatedly dunk his head in a frozen horse trough, holding his head under slightly longer each time until he talks.