A Plague Of Heretics (Crowner John), by Bernard Knight
Reading this book reminded me of why I liked the Brother Cadfael novels so much more. This particular series appears based in large part on the success of the Brother Cadfael novels–this series is set in Plantagenet times with a crusading hero who seeks to solve murder mysteries in a west country city. But it is what is different between this series and the Brother Cadfael series where the superiority of the latter shines through. Cadfael is a loyal and deeply religious person, while Crowner John is a bully, an inveterate skirtchaser, and someone who lacks a great deal of sympathy and understanding with organized religion. This is a fatal flaw when it comes to writing about the Middle Ages, for one, and about the Roman Catholic Church or any church at all. An author who, like the author, is hostile to the claims of authority that a church has and sympathetic with heretics and rebels, is someone who cannot fairly approach religious issues, and that makes this book far less enjoyable than it would be in the hands of a writer with a less strident and problematic worldview. This book is a case where discovering the villians is as easy as picking out the author’s anticlerical bias, and that is a serious flaw.
A Plague Of Heretics, a standard sized medieval mystery novel of almost 400 pages, finds the hero returned to Exeter after a time in London (review forthcoming) finds Crowner John serving as the coroner for Exeter during a time of an outbreak of yellow plague that corresponds with the outbreak of violence being committed against a few heretics in the town. Crowner John takes up the side of the heretics and draws the hostility of the local religious establishment as well as the larger body of citizenry, who blames the plague on the foreign ideas and foreign trade that connect Exeter to southern France. The proliferation of dead heretics, and the large number of potential suspects, leads to a situation where Crowner John has to try to prove his innocence as well as trying to avoid infecting his “whore from Dawlish” (aka wifey number two) with the plague while also encouraging the health of his older brother. Unfortunately, the author’s all too obvious hostility to the Roman Catholic Church stacks the deck in favor of heretics who would do well to lay low and not draw so much attention to themselves, as they appear to be of the mistaken opinion that heresy has no social and political consequences, which alas is not the case.
One of the essential elements of a good mystery series is having a likeable hero, and unfortunately, this novel does not deliver on that. The author shows himself to be casually misogynistic to most of the women in the book, who serve merely as shrewish wives, potential adultery partners, or servants vulnerable to sexual exploitation and invariably timid or mousy. The deaths in this novel are all too convenient, ridding the author, at least potentially, of one of the main elements that makes the author so unlikeable as a force of law and order, and that is his complete inability to control himself, whether with regards to his considerable temper or his sexuality. One wonders whether the author is a secret feminist out of his terrible portrayal of his out of control hero, who tries to justify his threats against his wife and finds himself, appropriately, trying to prove his innocence in strangling her when he had made threats to end her life in their endless rows. When the reader is led to actively root against the hero because he is such a boar, one can tell that a novelist has failed to craft a sympathetic protagonist.