Crime Fiction Set in the Middle Ages: Historical Novel and Detective Story

morbid taste for bonesCrime Fiction Set in the Middle Ages: Historical Novel and Detective Story


ZAA: A Quarterly of Language, Literature and Culture, Volume 53 (2005)

Abstract: In the wake of Ellis Peters’ first Brother Cadfael Chronicle, A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977), there has been a veritable boom in medieval mystery stories. Since all authors proclaim to write historical crime fiction, they combine the two genres of the historical novel and the detective story. In doing this, they create specific images of the Middle Ages. The notion of what is medieval and how the Middle Ages can be used as a site for crime fiction is the subject of the first part of this investigation. Parts two and three analyze the conventions adopted from the modern detective story, especially the Golden Age clue-puzzle story and the hard-boiled school, and their use in medieval mysteries.

In the last decade and a half, the extensive section on mystery stories and crime fiction in British and American book stores has been complemented by a new type: the medieval mystery story. The slogans on the covers of the paperback versions appeal to the prospective buyer: “In the tradition of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels, Sister Frevisse is sinfully good at discerning the mysteries of the soul […] and solving the crimes of the human heart” (Margaret Frazer, The Servant’s Tale, 1993); “In the tradition of Ellis Peters, ‘A Plague on Both Your Houses’ introduces the physician Matthew Bartholomew […]” (Susanna Gregory, A Plague on Both Your Houses, 1996); “Definitely an Ellis Peters competition,” Evening Standard (Peter Tremayne, Absolution by Murder, 1997); and “Ellis Peters has a cohort of pretenders snapping at her heels […],” Time Out (Candace Robb, The Cross Legged Knight, 2002). Only P.C. Doherty stands on his own: “The maestro of medieval mystery,” Books Magazine (Paul Doherty, A Haunt of Murder, 2003).

These sales pitches are obviously directed at those buyers who appreciate Ellis Peters’ historical detective stories which are seen, by both publishers and readers, as the fountain head of this particular type of crime fiction. And indeed, the Brother Cadfael mysteries, first published in 1977, constitute the beginning of a sub-genre that has been very successful commercially. As Jacqueline K. Dohn Maas, writing in 1995, observes: “There have been twenty titles or ‘Chronicles’ featuring the shrewd Benedictine with over 10 million copies sold to date”. Kathryn Kennison quotes sales people as saying that mysteries set in medieval England generate the most interest and sell more than any other detective fiction.

Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Chronicles, however, were no instant success. They did not make the New York Times best-seller list, as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose did, which was published in 1980 in Italian and translated into English in 1983. The first Brother Cadfael novel had a modest run of 5,000 hardcover copies, largely for library sales. The Cadfael novels continued to be issued in hardback by Macmillan, but sales were modest and appreciation limited, which frustrated Peters’ literary agent, Deborah Owen. Once Eco’s book was published, however, sales picked up. The huge international success of The Name of the Rose was beneficial to the Cadfael series, as Deborah Owen realized. Peters, though, appeared miffed when her books were described as being “in the tradition of The Name of the Rose” and she responded in an interview in The Guardian: “seven of my books had been published before Eco’s first”. Comparisons with Eco rankled her, as can be gathered from remarks made in an interview with Clues three years before her death in 1994.

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