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Do you go to Church, if so, how often? The chances are that you do not; either you don't believe, have lapsed slightly, or of a different faith. Whatever the reason there is no hiding the fact that Church visitations have fallen over the years. Even since World War Two the influence and power of the Church in Britain has fallen. Compared to the power religion used to have things have dropped dramatically. I believe we are in a society that worships commerce - my reasoning is by looking at buildings. The largest, tallest, most expensive buildings are now centres of business. Go back to medieval times and the largest building in any village or town was usually the..... Church! Big buildings mean big power and big influence. Where we a more safe and moral society 600 years ago? A killer priest would beg to differ.
Sir John de Wolfe is one of the newly formed Crowners set up to protect Richard the Lionheart's interests whilst he is off on the Crusades. The Crowner (coroner) job is to look into serious crimes that occur in his region. The untimely death of a Jewish money lender is such a crime. Initially the murder of a money lender could be anyone, but a note copied from the bible suggests something very different. In Norman society only very few people can read and write, and most of them are part of the Church. When more people start to die with strange notes it seems that de Wolfe must go up against the powerful church to root out an evil in its midst.
'The Grim Reaper' was a surprisingly modern feeling novel set in the Norman era. The story smacked of 'Seven' or 'Saw' in a habit! Don't let that put you off as it is nowhere near as extreme of exploitative. Instead it follows a similar theme of a killer setting out a list of victims according to his agenda that becomes more obvious as the story progresses. What adds spice to the tale is the very fact that the book is set 100s of years ago. Unlike today were any nutter with a biro can scrawl a note the words used in 'Grim' means that it can't just be anyone, but must be amongst the most trusted of people around.
Another area that worked in 'Grim' is the setting as Bernard Knight describes it. It's clear that he is very knowledgeable on the subject to the point that he uses real street names for his story. Knight paints a vivid and dirty picture of Norman times that feels very real. Our hero is himself a slightly pious and unforgiving man who cheats on his bland wife. However, this is completely in keeping with the era and when you see what the other people in the city are doing de Wolfe comes across as almost saintly! This down and dirty history is always my favourite type, e.g. TVs 'Rome', as its more true to human nature and the real events of the past. 'Grim' is a well researched and vividly described piece of work.
Why the three stars score then? At times I felt that Knight was more interested in a history lesson than telling a story so some elements of the book drifted into areas of academia and blandness. I also felt that the investigation was a little loose and that the ending was poor. Too much energy is spent describing the internal politics of the Norman Church/State relationship and not on the murder case. It also concludes a little too haphazardly and quickly to be satisfying.
Despite the flaws 'The Grim Reaper' is still worth reading just due to the interesting setting. The lack of forensics means that de Wolfe struggles to find the killer and you get the feeling that if he was a modern cop he would be very efficient. In many parts of the book I enjoyed the history and setting, it's just that on occasion it got a little dull. I imagine that over the series of books that Knight will write some more impressive stories and still have the great historic setting. This is a book for a crime fan looking to read something a little bit different from the norm.
Author: Bernard Knight
Price: amazon uk - £5.49
play.com - £5.49