The Sanctuary Seeker by Bernard Knight

I’m having a bit of a tour around other medieval mystery writers at the moment – after Michael Jecks, we find Bernard Knight, author of mysteries set in late twelfth century Exeter. Crowner John is the newly appointed coroner, permanently at odds with the sheriff of the county, who also happens to be his brother-in-law. This is the first of an ongoing series of fourteen novels featuring John, his retainer Gwyn and his clerk Thomas.

This first book details the investigation into the death of a Crusader, found stabbed to death in a river near a small village. He is discovered to be a member of a local noble and influential family, starting a political struggle between John and the sheriff, who is more interested in a quick arrest and punishment. But when a second body, killed in a similar way, is found in the wilderness, the quick arrest that the sheriff has made seems to be a mistake. But as God has judged the accused to be guilty, can the real criminal be brought to justice?

Hmm… a book of two halves, this one. Let me explain.

It’s very well written. The characters seem real and three-dimensional, especially Crowner John. Atypically for the lead in such book, John isn’t perfect, particularly in his marriage. He has a number of mistresses, apparently, due to being trapped in a marriage of convenience. He doesn’t come across as particularly bright, either, as it seems to be Thomas, the deformed clerk, who gathers most of the crucial information. He is a man of his convictions, however, determined to punish the guilty and spare the innocent.

There are some lovely ideas here as well, all based on historical fact. The notion of trial by ordeal is horrific – in this case, the accused has to retrieve a stone from the bottom of a barrel of boiling water – if he does NOT get burns on his arm, then he is innocent. This leads to the problem of having someone proved divinely to be guilty…

However… as good a read as it is, the plot is mediocre, mystery-wise. We visit a number of crucial places for the crime, meet some people, revisit one and someone puts their foot in it. And then we get one of the things that always annoys me – the reveal of the killer (not remotely a surprise) and then a prolonged (60+ pages) sequence before we get to the end of the book, without any further surprises. Indeed, the title of the book relates to this part of the book, not the mystery…

Overall, certainly worth another look, but it doesn’t rank particularly highly as a mystery. Good read, though.


  1. Oh, I completely agree – it’s the mystery that always keeps me as a reader. There’s enough here (just) to entice me back for a second helping at some point, but I think if the plot was as basic as this, then I’d not come back for a third outing.

    It is fascinating to compare the authors of books set around the same period. I could and will contrast and compare this and the previous one with The Anger of God, the fourth outing for Athelstan from Paul Doherty. In the introduction alone, there’s a conspiracy to murder, a thief of body-parts of executed criminals and an apparent possession of a young girl. Chapter One then opens with another murder… It does make this book seem rather empty…


  2. […] In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel Spoiler Free Reviews of Fair Play Detective Fiction Skip to content HomeAbout the authorEllery QueenPaul DohertyHugh CorbettThe Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother AthelstanAmerotke, Chief Judge of ThebesThe Journals of Roger ShallotThe Canterbury TalesThe Ancient Rome MysteriesMathilde of WestminsterSir Henry Merrivale ← The Sanctuary Seeker by Bernard Knight […]


  3. It’s always good to know that someone’s out there looking at our books, but I think it’s fair to point out that it’s probably difficult to judge the stories by Bernard, Paul or me by diving into a long series and grabbing what you can! The contracts always demand that we have each book as a stand-alone story, but all too often the books will change as the series grows. And, to be fair, as an author develops, his or her writing skills will alter, too. Not always for the better!

    Often one book will come into the author’s mind, and it may well be totally different from previous stories. Sometimes it’s a diversion that works, sometimes it doesn’t work as well as the author would like, but if we didn’t change our style, the job of reading would become really tedious. As a reviewer myself, I know I can read usually three crime stories before growing jaded and having to read something different. I intentionally tried to make each subsequent story very different from the previous one, so I’d have a pretty black tale like Butcher of St Peter’s preceded by a humorous story like Death Ship of Dartmouth.

    But that’s a writer’s excuse! Keep reading, and thanks for the reviews. Perhaps I should have put this under your review of my own book!


    • Wow – my first comment from a reviewee.

      You’re absolutely right about dropping into a series in the middle for one book. It must be hard to judge it both for someone who’s been a loyal follower since day one and a series virgin. I make an effort where possible to start at the beginning, but it’s not always possible for the first book in the series.

      It’s interesting that you make a change of style throughout the same series. I enjoyed The Tolls of Death enough to give the series another go – perhaps I’ll head back to the one set in Galicia, one of my favourite places. Or maybe just go back to the start. EDIT: Have just picked up a couple on Abebooks, starting from The Mad Monk…

      Out of curiousity, Michael, which of your own books are you most proud of?


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