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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Poisoned Chalice. Bernard Knight. Pocket Books 1998.

This is an engaging and enjoyable historical mystery which uses the medieval setting very effectively. December 1194 in Exeter and the newly created coroner, Sir John De Wolfe is called to a local village regarding a shipwreck. A question has been raised about the fate of the sailors who were washed ashore. A more complicated question arises with the rape of a well born young woman; the uncertain jurisdictional lies between the Sheriff and the Coroner make the crime much more complex to investigate. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the Sheriff is John de Wolfe’s brother-in-law and the thoroughly dislike each other. When woman is found dead and apparently attempting to have an abortion the clamour against a local silversmith turns serious. The story unwinds carefully, the reveals are very well staged and the resolution satisfying and complete.
Bernard Knight deftly uses the investigations inside and outside Exeter to explain the new created role of coroner and the political and social structure of the period without ever just dumping information on the reader. With Crowner John involved in an investigation over which he has undisputed control and in one where every move he makes is disputed by the existing authority in the shape of the sheriff, the structures and political pressures of the times are revealed very naturally. This structure leaves the cast the space to be themselves and not have to carry ant weight of exposition, which is great as they are a loud rowdy lot who are all, happily jostling for the reader’s attention.
Connected as he is to the top of Exeter society by his job and marriage, Crowner John is connected to the other side of the city by his Welsh, innkeeper mistress, Nesta. This structure allows the whole of the city to be involved without feeling that it has been shoehorned in for effect. The very small size of medieval life is nicely conveyed, social distances were much greater than physical ones could be and the friction is captured well.
The plot mechanics are excellent, the threads of the plot are very well set up and as the investigation continues the questions are neatly raised and answered in surprising and engaging ways. The sharp bend at the end is thoughtful and effective; it comes directly from the story yet is suitably unexpected. The mystery and the setting are well stitched together, the action is not simply laid over a picturesque setting, it depends on the dynamics of the context to work. A good fun read.

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