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Fear in the Forest is the seventh book in the Crowner John series of murder mysteries set in 12th Century Devon (Exeter - mainly). The books are written by former pathologist Bernard Knight who was head pathologist for 40 years and therefore has countless experience of autopsies and crime detail.
The novel looks at the centuries old forest laws which though termed Forest actually covered any piece of land owned by the crown. The land is regulated by the foresters who through Draconian actions squeezed as much money out of the land as possible. One day a vergerer is killed whilst riding a horse, a vergerer supposedly regulates the foresters and it's soon clear that the killing has more importance than just the death of one man.
The killing brings the newly appointed coroner Crowner John into the investigation and also means he will collide with his brother in law, the sheriff Richard de reveille, Richard is decidedly dodgy.
The books are set in the last decade of the 12th century where England is under the control of Richard the first, however, Richard is often away fighting in France and the Holy Land. This absence gives his brother John a chance to take the throne and allow unscupulous men a chance to use dodgy tactics to make some quick money.
Crowner John is John de Wolfe, a knight who served in Richards personal guard, he is now the coroner for Devon. He's tall, intense and prone to moods, he has a wife he dislikes and a Welsh mistress. He is generally fair and honest but a man of deeds rather than words.
Richard de reveille is John's brother in law, he's the opposite of John being a bit weedy, and unscrupulous. He uses his position to make as much money as possible.
Matilda de Wolfe - John's wife is pious and learned but also a money focused social climber, she uses her rich family as a weapon to beat John and forces him to try and get noticed in high society.
Gwen - Johns huge Welsh man at arms, he's Johns assistant but alos his friend after they fought in the Holy lands together. His need for food and drink is a constant through out the books.
Bernard Knight writes decent historical novels which are perhaps more historical than murder mystery. He is clearly far more interested in looking into the complex issue of the forest laws and wraps a slightly improbable murder into the tale. The story feels more like a historical note than a book about a murder in 1195, the author tends to use the tool of authenticity as a bludgeon for the story, he fails to engage the reader as well as he does in other books in the series.
This novel feels like an adventure story than a murder mystery but the story cracks along at a reasonable pace and gives the reader plenty to chew on over the politics of the later period of the 12th century. The novel is perhaps a little long, it comes in at 408 pages and would have been a better novel if it was 350-370 pages long.