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As one who enjoys murder mysteries and historical novels in equal measure, I always relish reading historical mysteries and have several favourite authors within the genre. The Medieval Murderers are a collaboration of such writers joining forces to write novels with a central theme to which they give their own particular spin within their preferred time period. The Medieval Murderers are (in no particular order) Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight, Susanna Gregory, Ian Morson and Philip Gooden.
Following the sacking of Jerusalem in 1100 AD an English knight is entrusted to return to England with a sacred relic, a piece of the true cross said to bear spots of Christ's blood. The relic comes with a warning, however: it is said to have been cursed by its owner when the crusaders had committed terrible slaughter in the Holy City. Anyone who touches the relic is destined to die as soon as it passes from their hand. Such is the lure of this relic than men would kill to possess it but whoever does possess it always dies. This story is the history of the relic as it is passed from person to person down the centuries leaving a trail of death in its wake.
I've read books by several of these authors previously, although Ian Morson and Philip Gooden were new to me, and I found the premise of this book intriguing enough to buy it but sadly, the story turned out to be something of a disappointment for several reasons.
The story kicks off with a prologue written by Simon Beaufort, a pseudonym of Susanna Gregory, who explains the origins of the curse and this is then followed by five 'acts' in chronological order and concludes with a very brief epilogue. Each act is written by one author whose sleuth solves the murder in his time period whilst handing on the baton to next writer and thus moving the story forward in time.
It's a great idea and I really looked forward to enjoying what was essentially five novellas which would give me a chance to enjoy previously known characters such as Crowner John, Sir Baldwin and Matthew Bartholomew as well as introducing me to William Falconer and Nick Revill, two characters I'd never come across before.
Unfortunately, what works within a full length novel where there is scope for character and plot development isn't always possible within the format of a novella and some of the 'acts' seemed a little sketchy and the solving of the crime was somewhat rushed. In this respect, I felt that some of the writers were much more adept at condensing their stories into this shorter format than others.
Each novella is roughly between 80 and 100 pages in length which doesn't really allow a huge amount of time to develop more than a very basic plot. Act One written by Bernard Knight takes place in late twelfth century Devon and features Crowner John, moving on to Oxford University in 1269 in Act Two, where William Falconer, Regent Master at the University takes up the sleuthing challenge. I'd never come across William Falconer or his creator, Ian Morson before and this book at least gave me an opportunity to sample his work.
The action then moved up to Leicestershire with Sir Baldwin and Simon Puttock and although this was the longest novella at just about a hundred pages, I felt it was the one that worked the least well or at any rate it was the one I least enjoyed.
With the fourth act, I was on more familiar territory with Matthew Bartholomew of Cambridge, the creation of Susanna Gregory. I enjoy Susanna Gregory's books and she seemed to be up to the challenge of writing a successful and satisfying crime novella.
Strangely, although I expected to enjoy the early Medieval action more than that of the Elizabethan era, it was that particularly 'act' from Philip Gooden which I enjoyed the most. This was the fifth and final act. It was a pleasure meeting Nick Revell, an actor in an Elizabethan troop known as the Chamberlain's Men who told his tale with energy and humour and it's certainly whetted my appetite to read more about this most enterprising and entertaining of men.
The epilogue skips forward four centuries to 2005 and give us a rather poignant conclusion. This is only two pages in length but manages to wrap up everything very neatly.
All writers have different styles of delivery, of course, and this did lead to a certain unevenness with this book and also prevented the story from flowing quite as smoothly as it perhaps should have done if it had been told by just one writer. That being said, I didn't totally dislike any of the stories, though some certainly worked better than others. The book was very like the curate's egg, being good in parts and the Elizabethan part, I'd rate as excellent.
I'm sure as this series continues, all the writers will improve and the books will possibly meld together in a more even style. This book certainly demonstrates that there's an art to short story and novella writing which comes more easily to some than others. I'm not certain I'll be rushing to buy any more books in this particular series but for anyone who hasn't read any of the authors before, it's a great way to sample their work. For me, it's introduced me to two other writers in this genre I'd never come across before and I'll definitely be seeking out more of Philip Gooden's wonderful Elizabethan sleuth, Nick Revill.