The last time I checked out a modern impossible crime novel on the increasingly-tenuous pretence that this is being done exclusively for the beneft of TomCat, I took a swing at something that turned out to (maybe?) contain no impossibility at all. Thankfully that won’t happen again. Right?
The Knight’s Tale (2021) by M.J. Trow is the first in, one presumes, a planned series featuring as sleuth the poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer, set around the time the real-world Chaucer is thought to have commenced writing The Canterbury Tales. ‘The Kinght’s Tale’ is, of course, the opening story of that work, but there the similarities end. Part of me would have liked for Chaucer’s work to have informed at least some of the structure of this novel, but beyond a couple of knights and the fact that there have been multiple suitors for certain women there’s no hint of that. This alone isn’t enough to spoil things, far from it, but it does reinforce the feeling that Chaucer was made the main character purely because the reading public of the 21st century might have heard of him.
Anyway, here’s the synopsis that brought me to this book in the first place:
April, 1380. About to set off on his annual pilgrimage, Comptroller of the King’s Woollens and court poet Geoffrey Chaucer is forced to abandon his plans following an appeal for help from an old friend. The Duke of Clarence, Chaucer’s former guardian, has been found dead in his bed at his Suffolk castle, his bedroom door locked and bolted from the inside. The man who found him, Sir Richard Glanville, suspects foul play and has asked Chaucer to investigate.
A suspicious death behind a locked door, you say — at least this time you do say it, the seeming impossibility mentioned in the synopsis, not just conjured up by my interpretation of the plot as with Ghosts of the Bamboo Road (2019) by Susan Spann. Lionel of Antwerp, the Duke of Clarence, is found dead in his room one morning, the bedroom door “locked as usual” and broken in with such force that the key which locked the door on the inside was found knocked over to the other side of the room. His beloved giant hound Ankarette had been holwing for approximately half an hour before anyone thought to investigate, and the two were alone in the room when the door was broken in. There is no mark upon the body and, with the servant who tended to the dead man’s rooms averring that there was “not a morsel” of food or drink in to be found therein, the small matter how precisely how death was achieved is therefore raised.
Here, then, is where the first of the problems creeps in: there’s no real reason to presume foul play. Chaucer’s friend Sir Richard Glanville insists that the Duke was in excellent health…but that doesn’t exactly preclude heart failure, especially in the hardly health-conscious 1380s. The point is even made later that the dead man wanted stories of his long-faded virility to persist, and his taking the youthful Blanche Vickers to his bed was done purely for that reason — unable to perform sexually, he simply wished rumours of his conquest to spread in order to give the impression he was as vital as ever. By the time this point comes out, Chaucer is well down a path to seeking out a murderer, and the conclusion of murder is jumped upon at the very earliest opportunity, seized, and never relinquished for no reason other than someone doesn’t think it wasn’t murder. They’re correct in this surmise, which is of course the real reason for such conviction, but since we’re in the 14th century something about carts and horses springs to mind.
Another difficulty is that, since there’s no real conviction behind the justification of a supposition of murder, Chaucer’s investigation into the suspected crime has no real footing from which to launch. The first half of the book seems to consist of him wandering around the castle, accidentally finding himself in the presence of someone who happens to reveal some piece of information he’ll need later, and then wandering off again…rinse and repeat. Whether he was trying to find the person he happens to find isn’t clear some of the time, and how he knows that the information he is given is the information he needs, given that he can’t possibly forsee the developments ahead in which that knowledge will be useful, is, of course, an impenetrable mystery. And, for a book leaning so hard into a murder behind a locked door, the whole ‘How was this done?’ thread seems to be oddly under-realised, so that when Chaucer suggests at the end of chapter 4 that poison is the cause of death it’s supposed to be a dramatic enough point to end on…but everyone reading along at home is doubtless going “Well, yeah, and…?”
In many regards this is a perfect companion to the Spann book, because these flaws — an under-developed mystery solved by lots of convenient walking around and bumping into the right person or situation — are mirrored there, and the successes of that book are the successes of this. Trow has no sense of place, but a superb sense of era and practice: he’s clearly researched his medieval raiments no end, and little elements of the era in which this takes place sparkle through and keep the setting and situation keenly in your mind. I loved the moment when the servant Joyce is about to use a foul epithet and reflects that “she knew the words she would use among her friends, but she didn’t know if Chaucer would even know what they meant” — lexcical slang being as generational as it is hierarchical, the differences in their station thus very neatly shown.
It’s in these little moments with characters that Trow is at his best, such as when heir apparent John of Gaunt arrives at the castle, dismounts his horse and unbuckles his sword, tossing the blade aside with wonderful nonchalance: “He didn’t look where it was going; in Gaunt’s world, where he threw something, there would be someone to catch it, and he had never been wrong yet”. Chaucer’s evident surprise at the appearance of Glanville’s son Hugh when seeing the man out of his armour for the first time is also somewhat delightful — the description of the various foppish touches to the younger man’s clothes is a sort of sartorial horror-show that gets more fascinating the longer it drags on. Hell, I’m still tickled by the servant girl Anne who “does” for Chaucer in London and who, upon being told that a character called Ludlum “is expediting things”, reflects that she “had no idea what that was, but nothing would surprise her about Ludlum”. If there was more of this sort of thing, the various characters dropped upon you at that dinner would distinguish themselves more fully (I’m sorry to say that when Chaucer met the five tradesmen, I didn’t even try to separate them out — one was a cordwainer, which is simply a magnificent word, and possibly another was obsessed with a card game…that’s all I’ve got) and it would be easier to engage. As it is, no-one really stands out.
The odd thing about this approach is that I felt myself knowing less about characters the longer I spent with them; it doesn’t help that there are two women called Blanche and two men called Giovanni (one of them called John, and in the service or entourage of John of Gaunt…), and two men going by the title Seneshcal, so that every time someone appears I not only had no sense of which one they might be I also didn’t really know anything about that character once I figured it out (John Hawksmoor, sometimes called Giovanni, is good with a knife and speaks in a sort of guttural way…now move on). And the tone of the writing overall is also staggeringly broad, with descriptions and dialogue alike striking the, er, reading ear as far, far too modern for these people and this world. The phrase “All my eye of a yarn and Betty Martin” feels very anachronistic for the 14th century, though I could be wrong in that, and there are plenty of other examples of speech feeling like lads down the pub (“dodging an arrow” was the 14th century’s “dodging a bullet”, apparently) rather than literate gentlemen in the presence of aristocracy. Cornell Woolrich’s Waltz into Darkness (1947) was the last book I read before this and, despite being set 500 years later, has far more of the poise one might hope for in their historical fiction.
In fairness, though, I think most authors would come off badly in comparison with Waltz into Darkness.
And, as indicated above, using Geoffrey Chaucer as a sleuth seems to be purely for name recognition — nothing about him screams ‘obvious choice to investigate this suspected murder’: he’s bad at details (he manages to forget how many children he has, for one thing…) and given that his supposed debt to the dead man dates back as far as it does, it’s hard to believe no-one more suitable had found themselves beholden to the Duke in the meantime. Chaucer is tall, 40 years old, has a pot belly, and lost his virginity to a servant at the castle twenty years before…that’s all I’ve got. Yes, he’s “Comptroller of the King’s Woollens” but there’s never any sense of what that means, whether it matters, or if it makes him suitable for the role. He also seems vague about whether he was in Milan at some point — does that matter? And given that we’re not even using Chaucer’s own works to inform the structure of this — y’know, the old “Well, historical person X went through experience Y and then used that as inspiration for book Z” retro-fitting that goes on with so, so, so many historical mysteries — there seems to be no reason for him to be in this at all. He could be called Erik Hendlebroom and it would make, honestly, probably more sense.
This lack of character engagement, alas, took me out of events (Ohno, he’s trapped in a room with a tiger! Or something!) and left my brain free to fixate on some startlingly lumpy sentences like:
Chaucer [helped] himself to the bread and cheese, being careful to cut some from an already started piece — a man could not be too careful.
[L]ooking for a bottle in Clare castle was like looking for a needle in a pack of needles. The kitchen was full of them.
Additionally, only a few pages after Chaucer has been tended to by nuns following a beating and exhibits grave concerns over the Sister washing him seeing his nether regions, Chaucer described as “touching the apothecary’s wood as he spoke” had me in paroxysms of laughter for a distressingly long time.
And that locked room murder? Er, well, you can avoid this on those grounds. We’ve encountered this sort of semi-cheat solution too many times — and Trow at least deserves credit for avoiding turning it into a 200-page mystery only to apologetically vomit up this explanation, getting to the root of the matter quickly but with no less disappointment — and it has nothing interesting to bring to an already over-crowded corpus. I’m not even sure the second death by the same means is fully accounted for (why does the victim there look so terrified? I’m not being funny, but I don’t remember that being addressed), and the extended chase through the costume party that ties everything up is entertainingly discombobulating but resolved in a manner that relies on a character doing something we have no idea if they’d do because of how little sense we have of them from the preceding 200 pages.
You can expect The Miller’s Tale in due course, I’m sure, but you can also find plenty of much stronger historical mysteries, locked room mysteries, and Famous Person Solves a Crime mysteries to entertain you in the meantime.
Still, the Post-2010 Crime Fiction Bingo Card has a strong showing, so maybe there’s a benefit to historical mysteries after all:
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: