A Medieval Mystery

Posted: October 29, 2011 in Book Awards, Historical

They live very nobly, they wear king’s clothes, have fine palfreys and horses. When squires go to the east, the burghers remain in their beds; when the squires go get themselves massacred, the burghers go on swimming parties. 

Renard le Contrefait, a fourteenth century clerk of Troyes  from Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies. 

It is nice to know things were not that different in Medieval times from now. 

I have about four weeks to read the remaining four and a half books on the CWA Ellis Peters Historical crime fiction award shortlist, and with all my other commitments I don’t think I will manage to read them all. Therefore I should really be reading and not writing blog posts but I was struck by the fact that even though the award is named for Ellis Peters [Edith Pargetter] who authored a series of books about Brother Cadfael, a Medieval monk, that particular historical period seems to have been rather neglected by the judges. 

Since 2006 thirty six books have been shortlisted for the Ellis Peters, but only two [Ariana Franklin’s superb Mistress in the Art of Death, the winner in 2007; and The Death  Maze by the same author shortlisted in 2008] have been set in the Medieval period.

Attending a school where the athletic houses were named Grenville, Drake, Sydney, Spenser, Marlowe, and Raleigh; our history lessons were not surprisingly rather Tudor orientated.

I think there has recently been a trend at both GCSE and A Level to only study the First World War and Hitler and Stalin, and then a bit more Hitler and Stalin.  This restricted syllabus is in contrast with the syllabus when I attempted A level History in 1970 [I already had a degree in dentistry] when there were three papers English, European and a Special subject. Has this fixation with 20th century history influenced the composition of the Ellis Peters shortlists. Let us examine the period settings of the shortlisted books over the last six years in greater detail. Each shortlist had six books-* indicates winner:

2006: Ancient Egypt, 1830s Ottoman, Late 19th Century Ottoman, Tudor, 1830’s USA, late 1940s California*

2007: Medieval*, pre WWI, post WWII  Tuscany, 19th Century Canada, post WWII Germany, 1830s Ottoman

2008: Argentina 1950/Germany 1932, 1934 England, 1911 England, WWII*, Tudor, Medieval

2009: 17th Century Scotland, WWII, WWII, WWII, WWII, 1934 Germany/1954 Cuba*

2010: Tudor*, Tudor, Tudor, 18th Century England, post WWII USA, 19th Century Russia

2011: 1939 Soviet Union, 1946 Scotland, WWI, Tudor, 19th Century Russia, 18th Century England

Is there a shortage of crime fiction set in Medieval times?

Is it that the crime fiction set in Medieval period is just not as good as that set in more modern times? Or has the high standard set by Ellis Peters, and Umberto Eco’ s The Name of the Rose put the judges off other Medieval authors?  Or is the greater effort to read books set outside our own comfort zone too much of a handicap? If it is great characters we and authors want, and that is surely the reason for the number of Tudor books, there are plenty in Medieval times. What is your opinion? 

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – Oh, that is an interesting question! One thing that I think factors in is that many people, rightly or wrongly, feel a stronger connection with more recent history. So authors drift towards slightly more modern eras. Or it may be a matter of what the public has bought. I honestly don’t have the data, but I wonder whether sales of Medieval-themed novels are apace with those set in more modern times? That will affect, I think, what publishers seek and accept for publication. It also may affect authors’ choices of eras about which to write.

  2. […] interesting post from Norman at Crime Scraps Review raises a very good set of questions about historical mysteries. […]

  3. Peter says:

    I was suprised to read those statistics. What with Jeri Westerson, Peter Tremayne, Ariana Franklin, and all the nonsense about Knights Templar, and with the hold the Middle Ages have always had on people’s imaginations, I’d have thought the period would be better represented.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  4. Peter says:

    Maybe all the Templar nonsense has scared authors off.

  5. Norman says:

    Peter, I haven’t read Peter Tremayne for ages but I would have thought that one of his Sister Fidelma books would have been shortlisted over the last six years.

  6. kathy d. says:

    There’s Cora Harrison who lives in Ireland and writes about a woman judge in
    the late 1500s.

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