Anne McKendry, Medieval Crime Fiction: A Critical Overview

McFarland & Company, 267 pp., ISBN: 9781476666716, p/bk, US$39.95

Medieval Crime Fiction: A Critical Overview by Anne McKendry is this year’s must-have text for all crime fiction enthusiasts and scholars.

McKendry’s work is a stunningly innovative volume that fills an important gap in the research on the world’s most popular fictional genre. There are, literally, thousands and thousands of titles dedicated to the unpacking of different types of crime fiction, from clue puzzles with elegant killers, victims and sleuths that are set in the bucolic English countryside through to hardboiled tales of men, and the occasional woman, forming ambiguous silhouettes as they lean against lampposts, poised to light a cigarette as they watch and wait. There are books on noir of all kinds – including Scandinavian, Tartan and Kanga – in addition to books on thrillers and every conceivable type of cozy crime novel, an increasingly popular sub-genre of crime fiction that reveal the crime solving efforts of bakers, cat owners, hoteliers, librarians and knitters, many of whom live in impossibly dangerous small towns. There are volumes dedicated to a place or to a timeframe, as well as books devoted to a single author, while some researchers have followed themes such as ethics and feminism. Yet, surprisingly, there have been no works published that deal exclusively with medieval crime fiction: until now.

Medieval crime stories feature ‘a crime or mystery that is solved by a ‘detective’ and set during the European Middle Ages. These novels sit at the intersection of the historical novel, crime fiction and medievalism, harnessing the immense appeal of each to contemporary popular culture’ (p. 2). In a short article for medievalists.net, McKendry explains how examples within this sub-genre of crime fiction are:

set in a time several hundred years before detectives and police forces emerged in both fiction and fact. There were, of course, sheriffs, bailiffs, officers of the court, coroners, lawyers and gaolers in the medieval criminal justice system, of which the sheriff appears to be the closest to what today’s readers would recognise as a detective. But investigating crime was only a small part of the medieval sheriff’s role; they had much broader responsibilities as the most senior administrative officer in their counties, including collecting revenue, executing writs and carrying out military tasks.

The first chapter in her book sets the scene for a serious study of this sub-genre and looks at the work done to date. This chapter also examines the character Brother Cadfael—the famous Benedictine monk created by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) who solves numerous murders in 12th century England—and is ‘an exemplar of medieval crime fiction detectives’ (p. 2), and the first detective to be successfully located in the Middle Ages in 1977. Another early key figure is Umberto Eco’s Franciscan friar William of Baskerville who first appeared in print in 1980 before the Italian bestseller was translated into English in 1983 as the international blockbuster The Name of the Rose.

Chapters two and three focus on male detectives, the secular and those attached to religious orders. McKendry notes the male dominated nature of the sub-genre. This is hardly surprising given the greater restrictions on women in the Middle Ages and the surplus of men who were ‘knights, former knights, ex-crusaders or bailiffs: they are handy with a sword and not afraid to use violence in the course of their investigations’ (p. 8). Those men dedicating their lives to God are also easy to find in the Middle Ages though these detectives are particularly vulnerable as they ‘must cautiously navigate strongly held beliefs that God, Christ, the saints and Satan all actively intervene into earthly affairs’ (p. 9). These sleuths of intellectual rather than physical action are some of the more popular detectives within this type of crime fiction.

Chapter four turns to women who, despite having some of their freedoms curbed, were ‘not as constrained as is popularly believed’ though these characters—secular and religious—are inevitably tied to a ‘male companion, mentor, servant or partner whose presence is necessary to penetrate spaces or situations from which a woman is excluded’ (p. 9). Chapter five looks at the racial, religious and cultural conflicts that can be found depicted in medieval crime novels, with particular focus on Jewish people in England who were ‘surprisingly widespread’ despite the edict of Edward I to expel the small population of Jews, from the country, in 1290 (pp. 167–68). Chapter six looks at the complex, and for some readers controversial, project of transforming a famous historical man or woman into a fictional detective with McKendry exploring the re-casting of Geoffrey Chaucer, Leonardo da Vinci and Lucrezia Borgia, amongst others, from well-known cultural figure to criminal investigator.

As the title of the book suggests, this is a critical overview of medieval crime fiction and McKendry offers important and insightful analysis of a body of works that has been largely ignored by scholars. This is, very much, an ‘academic text’, but McKendry’s skill as a researcher and a writer also sees this volume as an invitation to general readers to explore, and to enjoy, the wide range of crime novels set in medieval Europe.

Interestingly, McKendry talks about the nostalgia often associated with the historical novel and the notions of a better (or at least different) world that many readers are drawn to. There is too a sense of nostalgia for the texts that she discusses. Readers that came to medieval crime fiction after working their way through the novels of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Peter Corris and so many others, will find this book a wonderful reminder of how ‘new’ the historical crime novel was in the 1970s and 1980s. For a remarkably robust genre that has reinvented itself for each generation since Edgar Allan Poe, the medieval crime story was a truly refreshing take on the traditional whodunit. Book sales for McKendry’s terrific text will, no doubt, be strong. Books sales for Ellis Peters might go up as well.

Medieval Crime Fiction, with an excellent bibliography and a useful index, will prove to be indispensable reading for academics and aficionados of crime stories. McKendry tells the fascinating tale of medieval crime fiction, and her keen observations on this type of writing (that can sometimes frustrate critical consumers with slips, errors and anachronisms) reveals an essential chapter of the crime fiction canon. Some may wonder why it took so long for this book to emerge, but on reading McKendry’s take on these medieval sleuths, most will agree it was worth the wait.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, February 2020

For a preview of the book or to purchase online, visit the pubisher’s website here: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/medieval-crime-fiction/

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