Crowner Royal (Crowner John), by Bernard Knight
This particular book finds Crowner John being brought from his beloved Exeter, where his estranged wife has threatened to take orders, to serve as the first royal coroner for the English court at Westminster. Naturally, there are problems. One of them is the ambiguous place of the royal coroner himself given the religious jurisdiction of Westminster and the hostility of the London tradesmen to the existence of a royal coroner at all. Naturally, the person to deal with this is Crowner John himself, who seems to be trusted by King Richard (and hostile to the future King John, which bodes ill for his longevity and power), William Marshal (a bit character here), and other people who are in high power. The bigger question is why the protagonist is trusted aside from the workings of authorial providence, since he seems remarkably slow on the uptake regarding the plots of others around him, since he seems so intent on chasing skirts–such as the wife of a French nobleman who openly flirts with others around him, as well as his sleeping business partner in a wool exporting business out of Exeter. And once again the author finds himself spending too much time showing the interior life of an unsympathetic protagonist who is a bully and an exploiter of women (and others) as well as venting his spleen about his hostility to religious figures.
The plot of this book is admittedly a strong point. A series of deaths ends up being connected, beginning with a member of low orders who listens in to treasonous conversation and finds his life snuffed out, and in the course of trying to figure out jurisdictional matters Crowner John finds himself being enlisted to guard the transfer of part of the royal treasury from Winchester to London, where it is needed to pay for King Richard’s wars to preserve his Angevin patrimony. Meanwhile, the impending visit of the imposing Eleanor of Aquitaine to England puts the whole court under a fair amount of stress, while John deals with stress in his own personal life, which he does not handle well. If the author’s dealing with matters of faith and with populist politics is not a strong suit (for some reason the author seems to dislike the lower classes, a snobbery that is not in any way earned by any sort of cultural or moral excellence on the part of the author’s worldview), the plot itself has plenty of enjoyable setpieces, including the coroner browbeating juries into accepting his interpretations of events and a fortuitous discovery of the identity of the culprits at the end that ties everything together nicely and gets Crowner John back to his home of Exeter.
As is often the case, this is a book that leads one to question the character of the author. Does the author think that Crowner John is an appealing hero? Clearly the flaws that the character has are intentional–one does not make a sexually promiscuous bully who is frustrated by the demands of temporary celibacy on accident. But is the protagonist meant to stand in for the author at all in being rationalistic, not particularly devout, and lucky rather than good at his job as a coroner? As a coroner the titular hero shows himself far more interested in dealing with the political aspects of his job than in addressing the moral aspects of life or in being a suitable figure that others might want to model themselves after him. He seems a loyal enough servant of the Plantagenets, with a fondness for bringing revenue their way, and yet the moral failings and snobbery of the man make his politics more than suspect, and undercut the design of the coroner system in the first place as being something that the reader should support and endorse.