Dark Age Detection: Historical Mysteries, Part Two

In March, we set off on part one of our (admittedly ambitious) attempt to take in the highlights of the wide and varied world of historical mystery fiction. With the unfolding of the centuries in mind, that first installment focused on stories of detection set in ancient civilizations. For the second leg on our journey, we’ll move forward a few hundred years to the millennium that spans the gloomily nicknamed Dark Ages and the following centuries — less dramatically known as the Middle Ages. And we won’t stop at the borders of Europe, as some of the finest historical mysteries being written are set in pre-modern Japan and China.

The 500 years following the fall of the Western Roman Empire were dubbed by the poet Petrarch “dark.” Although the 14th-century Italian was referring to a literary decline, the term caught on to denote the seemingly backward turn the Western world took with regard to religious and technological developments. To make a very long history lesson short, Rome’s decline and fall was, according to many commentators, inevitable because of overexpansion and the growing tension between Christianity and paganism. The end result was a protracted period of Catholic dominance, decentralization, and feudalism, marked by much intrigue and a dollop of paranoia. Beginning in the 11th century, a less fragmented Europe began to take shape, and what we now call medieval culture — in which literature and learning made a noticeable rebound — spread through much of the territory Rome had once dominated.

If you think the shifting tectonics of world history might make for a juicy crime fiction backdrop, the last decade or so has proved you right. But the market for medievalism opened up not just because of the Brother Cadfael novels (discussed in part one) but also in the wake of two additional novels: Umberto Eco’s international bestseller The Name of the Rose (1980) and Barry Unsworth’s chilling 1995 novel Morality Play. Eco’s hefty thriller, recounting an investigation of serial murder within a small sect of Benedictine monks, showcases not only Eco’s erudite philosophical leanings but also his ability to concoct a wide-ranging page-turner that would inspire this entire subgenre — as well as a certain religious-themed thriller by one Mr. Dan Brown. Morality Play is a more psychological story, concerning an English troupe of players who succumb to a Patricia Highsmith-esque gravitational pull of betrayal and murder.

More recent medieval crime fiction takes the monicker for the early part of the period — those Dark Ages — to considerable heart, regardless of the actual centuries of their setting. The best examples of this noir palette are, to my mind, Ariana Franklin’s two novels starring Adelia Aguilar, an Italian-born woman practiced in the ways of then-modern medicine and what we now know to be forensic pathology. Adelia’s forward-thinking tendencies clashed with 12th-century British norms in Mistress of the Art of Death (2007), an incisive tale of serial child murder ripping apart a small community, and went up against the political machinations of rival royal factions in The Serpent’s Tale, published back in January. Even though Franklin is better with more quotidian explorations of murder and mayhem, her meticulous research serves her well for these and future series volumes.

Britain proves to be an ideal setting for many a medieval-minded crime novelist, regardless of century. Peter Tremayne’s character-heavy Sister Fidelma novels explore the intersection between Ireland, Britain, and Rome in the 7th century, while Judith Healey jumps ahead to Chaucerian times with her lush 2006 debut, The Canterbury Papers. Michael Jecks has his own corner on the medieval market, as The Prophecy of Death marks the 25th appearance of his Knights Templar protagonists sleuthing in the wide-open spaces of England’s West Country, while hopes are high for Jeri Westerson’s September debut Veil of Lies, which introduces ex-knight turned criminal investigator Crispin Guest to 14th-century London waters. On the lighter side, Alan Gordon’s Fool’s Guild novels (continuing with May’s The Moneylender of Toulouse) jauntily depict medieval England from a jester’s eye.

Though Britain has the lion’s share of medieval mysteries, the rest of the world is hardly exempt. The Byzantine Empire, eventually undone when Constantinople fell in 1453, is well represented in the form of Tom Harper’s novels featuring Demetrios Askiates, an “unveiler of mysteries” last seen in the thick of the empire’s shenanigans in Siege of Heaven. Robin Young sets her historical thriller trilogy off to a rousing start with Brethren a little later in the Byzantine era in order to develop a comprehensive picture of the Knights Templar in the midst of the Crusades. Moving back to Europe, Frank Schatzing’s recently translated Death and the Devil depicts the brutality and darkness of 13th-century Cologne, Germany, while The Mosaic Crimes by Guilio Leoni not only brings 12th-century Italy to vivid life but also has a most idiosyncratic guide in the form of a fictionalized version of Dante Alighieri.

Though the terms “Middle Ages” and “medieval” tend to speak to a European context, the time period also provides a glorious backdrop for mysteries set in Asia. I. J. Parker’s novels, most recently Island of Exiles, are set in 11th-century Japan. Investigator Sugawara Akitada is as calculating and resourceful as a modern-day detective, but his manner and mores are rooted in a Japan far removed from the bustle and bright lights of today’s Tokyo. And the early history of China may not be as well known today if not for the pleasingly elegant whodunits by Robert van Gulik. His sleuth, the venerable, cantankerous Judge Dee, ranks with Ellery Queen and Rex Stout among the latter part of the Golden Age’s best.

A common assumption about the Middle Ages is that they ended sometime around the 14th century, but in truth, the medieval worldview endures all the way through the emergent Renaissance and through the reigns of monarchs like Britain’s Elizabeth I and Spain’s Philip II. The distinction is important for this piece, too, for now I have little reason not to mention Golden Age doyenne Josephine Tey and her outstanding alternate history of 15th-century England, The Daughter of Time (1950), not to mention C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series (continuing later this year with Revelation), densely plotted affairs that put most research-heavy mystery novelists to shame.

This time period also gives rise to Cora Harrison’s 15th-century sleuth, the delightful and resourceful Irish judge Mara. Though she might be out of place in the world of Leonardo and Caravaggio as depicted in Javier Sierra’s thriller The Last Supper, she does have sovereignty over the tiny Irish village where My Lady Judge (2007) is set. Tasked with finding the murderer of a rather unpleasant law student whom no one was sorry to see dead, Mara’s intellectual capacity and sharp feminine wiles are in full evidence, as they are again in the upcoming follow-up The Michaelmas Tribute.

Suffice to say that the medieval era, while well plumbed on the mystery front, still offers plenty of fodder for writers eager to fill in the gaps and shine a light on the undiscovered possibilities of a richly varied period. The field is far more crowded as we get closer to the present — as we’ll see when we move ahead to the Modern Age in part three.