Medieval Murder Mysteries

I’ll admit it, I go through murder mystery junkie phases. Yup, every so often I just can’t get enough of books about corpses.

That’s a joke. The real reason I like murder mysteries isn’t the death or the gore (I’ll leave those to Steph and Yash in their dystopias and creepy stories, respectively), but the characters. Character development, both in the short term with characters who appear in only one story, and in the long term with the characters who are featured throughout the series, is the number one thing I look for in a murder mystery. Well, number two; good writing is number one. Except that can it be good writing without character development? Maybe – but not in a murder mystery series. Not by my standards, anyway.

Murder mysteries are one genre that I think profits from being set in the past. (Although if you can convince me otherwise with really good murder mysteries set in the present, I’ll happily admit I’m wrong.) I’m not so fond of gory dissection scenes, for one thing (*cough* forensic science), nor of shoot-em-dead endings, nor of tales where everything hinges on modern technology, which, frankly, is light years ahead of what I can comprehend. (There’s a reason I don’t read spy stories: they often hinge on surveillance technology and devolve into technie jargon instead of an actual story with characters. But again, if you can prove me wrong, please do!) Cell phones and computer nerds, awesome as the latter can be, kinda take the human touch out of the suspense of a good story. And particularly in stories centred around a death, that human touch is absolutely necessary. I can only speak for myself, but there hasn’t been a whole lot of death in my experience. The awareness of human fragility and of one’s own mortality that my ancestors lived with daily is not often present in my current existence. There’s the newspaper, sure, and the internet – but those show death far away and removed by a screen. Books, however, bring me face to face with other people – no matter how far away they live, or how long ago they died – and make me care about them.

One of the greatest opportunities and advantages that murder mysteries have over other genres is that it is so extremely natural, even necessary, in such circumstances, to explore the slender border between death and life. We all die. Is it, as some philosophers and authors have proposed, the knowledge of our own impending deaths, and the deaths of the people we love, that makes life so precious? And, given a story where a human murders another human, how could ethics, morality, and beliefs surrounding life and death not come to the foreground? Some synesthetes, I read last week, experience the physical sensation of being touched when they see other people being touched; watching violent television shows or movies is unbearably painful as their brain translates visual information about other people to a tactile experience enacted upon themselves, rendering these synesthetes acutely empathetic to others’ experiences, whether comforting or excruciating. This is what great books do, I think: they make the experiences of other people, particularly powerful experiences that have not occurred in our own lives, become as real to us as if they were our own. This is what a good murder mystery should strive for.

Today I’ll look at three medieval murder mystery series set in or near Britain: in chronological order, the Sister Fidelma Mysteries by Peter Tremayne, set in seventh century Ireland; the Brother Cadfael Mysteries by Ellis Peters, set in twelfth century England; and the Dame Frevisse Mysteries by Margaret Frazer, set in fifteenth century England.

Fun facts to get us started (aka fun facts to prove why these three series can be compared):

  • each of these is a series
  • set in the middle ages
  • set in or near Britain
  • set during a time of turmoil
    • Fidelma: dispute between the Celtic and Roman church traditions
    • Cadfael: civil war as cousins Stephen and Maud (alias Matilda) fight for the throne
    • Frevisse: set in the decades leading up to the War of the Roses as nobles take advantage of a power vacuum and tear England apart for their own profit
  • told from a third-person limited omniscient perspective
  • Fidelma, and Frevisse are nuns, and Cadfael is a monk
  • Peter Tremayne, Ellis Peters, and Margaret Frazer are pseudonyms

Awesome, right? So, what’s different about them?

  Tremayne - Absolution by Murder

Sister Fidelma is a dalaigh, which is to say she is a highly-trained lawyer. Her brother is one of Ireland’s many kings. In the Celtic church, couples can be married and have children and still devote their lives to God as monastics. Fidelma is married to the Saxon Eadulf; she is a nun and he is a monk. Their different backgrounds, expectations/beliefs, and personalities clash often. The Sister Fidelma series is thoroughly researched and incorporates multiple sub-plots and minor recurring characters. Celtic  terms are sprinkled throughout the text, and customs (and politics) are explained, often becoming key to the resolution of the conflict(s). The drawback to this is that the story is sometimes bogged down by explanations, and minor characters are easy to forget, causing confusion when they reappear. Fidelma is not always a likeable character, which makes her feel all the more real. She is quick-tempered and stubborn as well as keen-witted and devoted to the law.

Peters - A Morbid Taste for Bones

Brother Cadfael was a young man when he left Wales to Crusade; many years older and wiser he returned to join an English monastery as a brother and herbalist. This series is strongly formulaic: young girls are always beautiful and young men always handsome, for example. The glimpses of political life are for the most part straight-forward but nonetheless (or perhaps because of that very straightforwardness) fascinating. Cadfael is tolerant of human foibles and impatient with pretense and real vice. He sometimes finds cause to bend (or outright break) the law in order to serve justice. This series won’t make your head spin with new and dizzying perspectives but provides an enjoyable, comforting read where honour and loyalty win out over greed and selfishness, and where innocent, ardent young couples always find each other, and a path out of their troubles.

Frazer - The Novice's Tale

Dame Frevisse is a quick-minded Benedictine nun; unlike the other two *SPOILER* she has no children, nor has she ever wanted to be anything but a nun. Unfortunately for Frevisse (but fortunately for us readers!), her sharp wit, good sense, and noble cousin Lady Alice (Geoffrey Chaucer’s real historical granddaughter) draw her out of her quiet priory more often than Frevisse is comfortable with. Each story is titled as though it were one of Chaucer’s stories (eg. The Clerk’s Tale) and told partly from an omniscient voice that gives glimpses into the title character’s perspective. This technique provides very different opinions on the characters (including Frevisse), on events, and on life in general – the effect is at times subtle and at times alarming: The Bastard’s Tale and The Maiden’s Tale made me want to know these (real historical) people, whereas delving into the head of a murderer in The Murderer’s Tale was so convincing I felt unclean. Like the Fidelma series, the Frevisse mysteries are superbly researched. Over the course of the series, the reader witnesses England unravel socially and politically. One thing this series does excellently well is to portray medieval perspectives in a way that feels at once familiar and utterly foreign. Frevisse’s piety and her practicality are beautifully blended; she, like Fidelma, has foibles and is not always liked by other characters, but whatever Frevisse’s flaws, her devotion and desire to do what is right are admirable and beyond question.

Do these series bring the reader to care about other people’s suffering, and to consider their own mortality? I think so – to lesser and greater degrees, certainly. I hold the Frevisse mysteries in high esteem for that reason, and for the subtlety of the writing (which includes long-term character growth). What about you? What mysteries have you read that make you more aware of how precarious, how precious life is?

8 responses to “Medieval Murder Mysteries

  1. :O I love medieval murder mysteries! I adore Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (which may be far too arcane for most YA readers without a background in medieval theology but is otherwise prolly the best medieval murder mystery ever) and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael.

    Recently in my game design work, I developed an RPG character class for people who’d rather play a mystery solving monk or nun than the “Fighter-but-with-healing-spells” cleric using this sort of character template (Cadfael in particular) as an inspiration.

    I’ll definitely add these others to my list of things to be on lookout for.

    • Awesome RPC idea!
      I tried The Name of the Rose a loooong time ago and didn’t get far (I think I was too young) – maybe it’s time to give it another shot.
      Happy reading!

      • While the descriptions are beautiful and fascinating, they can also be incredibly long, and many are ultimately tangential, extensive red-herrings.

        One of his other books, Baudolino, is part historical fiction, part high fantasy and part who-dunnit murder mystery, and is a much easier read.

  2. Interesting point about murder mysteries set in the past vs. present! Arguably, the villains of either piece are as canny as they need to be given the science (or lack thereof) that they may be up against, but I too see the merit of historical murder mysteries- much more interesting to see what kind of strategies the sleuths will come up with. I will be sure to check out the ones you recommend!

    Also, I know this is set in present day, but OMG you need to read The Name of the Star already! It’s nothing you can’t handle, I promise. (Also, if you are looking for older murder mysteries, look up Mistress of the Art of Death? It’s not YA, and it is admittedly a bit gory (forensics!) but it is very interesting and has tons of character development! I have to say, I would never have imagined myself recommending this to you … maybe just read a chapter and see if you’re in.) Okay, end of super-long message. Your blog post got me very excited! I loved it!


    • Thanks!
      I’ve read Mistress of the Art of Death, but not the sequels. Are they as good as the first? I’ll look for The Name of the Star (kinda surprised you haven’t told me to read Maureen Johnson before).
      See you tomorrow! :)

      • I liked the sequel for The Mistress of the Art of Death, the third one was meh, and I haven’t read the fourth one. But I do like the second one!

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