1100, and William Rufus, aka William II, aka William the Red was out for a hunt in the New Forest. His fellow huntsman loosed an arrow at a stag, but missed the beast. What he did hit, unfortunately, was his King, right in the chest. As the King laid dying, his killer, for fear of punishment for the accident, fled and was never seen in England again. William’s younger brother Henry, as soon as he heard of his brother’s death, raced to London to claim the throne. A dreadful accident leading to the end of a feared King…
… if it was an accident, of course.
I’m always wary of the true crime genre, or even using true events as the inspiration for books. There are a couple of instances that really bug me – Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue that uses the serial killer Bible John, who killed in the late sixties and was never caught, and Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side, drawing heavily from the tragic life of Gene Tierney. Both of these books were published when people involved in the cases were still alive and presumably not really in the mood for a reminder of the past in the name of entertainment. Other books concern me at times – I do tend to overthink things – such as the Bryant & May book that reveals the source of the Kings Cross station fire, although the author, Christopher Fowler, is much better placed to gauge the reaction to that one, being a local, and has put me right on that one. But I’m always a little over-sensitive to these sort of things – no idea why.
But at some point, you draw the line as to where the recent past becomes distant history. Is it World War I, the inspiration, if that’s the word, for the recent (and excellent) A High Mortality Of Doves by Kate Ellis? What about Dr Crippen’s crimes, as detailed in Dancing For The Hangman, or Jack The Ripper, of whom more than a few books have been written?
Whatever, it’s fairly safe to say that there aren’t many who would get offended by popping back 900 years. This is an interesting book, half-story and half-thesis. It tells the tale of Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is determined to find the truth concerning the tragedy in the forest before he meets his maker, helped by the chronicler Eadmer.
Doherty sources his story from historical documents – practically everything he could get his hands on, which is actually a surprising amount – to try and tie together the various discrepancies from the various chronicles, with each chapter citing his sources and his decisions as to which conclusions to draw from them, making it more of a practical analysis than you might expect. But it’s framed as a story and as ever, Doherty’s language and descriptive prowess keep the reader enthralled, although it does feel a little odd when large sections of chronicles are presented verbatim. It’s a little like the book isn’t sure exactly what it wants to be – a thesis or a mystery – and it never quite satisfies as either.
Regardless, I found it a fascinating read, but primarily due to my interest in medieval history rather than as a mystery novel. It’s definitely worth a look IF you have a similar interest, but if not, why not take a look at one of Paul’s more traditional mysteries? Well Worth A Look.
I also worry about living figures being incorporated into works of fiction, because I’m always wondering just how much truth is involved & whether my knowledge is being corrupted (let alone the effect on the figure themselves). However, many authors go to great lengths to used documented facts and probably present the known truth at least as accurately as many of the contemporary biographers & newspapers accounts of these figures. I tend to read more happily along with fictionalised events that I haven’t personally lived through, but still try not to let these versions enter my brain as the absolute or only truth of the matter.
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