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21.04.07 McKendry, Medieval Crime Fiction

The Medieval Review

21.04.07 McKendry, Medieval Crime Fiction


There is much to learn from McKendry's Medieval Crime Fiction: A Critical Overview. In the introduction, the author presents some parameters for the ensuing discussion. She gives the time span of 500 to 1500 CE and excludes texts with pronounced fantastical components. Delightfully, even as she tells us what she excludes, McKendry introduces us to fascinating titles out of the scope of her present project. Who would grumble upon learning that a book series started by Kaye George and set among the Neanderthals takes the title of the oldest time frame in a mystery (5)? Chapter 1 covers a lot of ground, treating each constitutive element of medieval crime fiction in some depth: historical novel, detective fiction, and medievalism. Chapter 2 focuses on male detectives who hold a range of secular occupations including knights, lawyers, and surgeons, which enable them to investigate crimes. The complex interaction of medieval/(post)modern/medievalist will surely catch the readers' interest. McKendry observes, for instance, that "...while [Raymond] Chandler repackages the medieval [knight of romance] in order to develop his own distinctly modern private investigator, medieval crime fiction authors harness this modern construction of the hardboiled detective and reinsert it into the landscape of the Middle Ages" (45). Chapter 3 features male detectives who belong to religious orders. Here McKendry foregrounds the issue of the likely clash of the characters' religious beliefs with the rational explanation required to elucidate the circumstances of a murder.

Chapter 4 takes on female detectives whose circumstances of limited movement in medieval societies present challenges for the writers. McKendry identifies the tension between presenting a historically accurate world that included misogyny to varying degrees and having a feminist protagonist whom present-day audiences desire to see represented.Chapter 5 concerns itself with Jewish characters of medievalist crime fiction, especially in England in the period between the expulsion in 1290 and return in the 1650s.The medievalist mystery writers seek to combat injustices committed against the Jews during the European Middle Ages, particularly those involving the "blood libel" accusations. Only in one case does an author have a Jewish detective for their series: Caroline Roe's Isaac of Girona who solves crimes in mid-fourteenth-century Spain (179)."[M]edieval crime fiction novels," McKendry concludes in this chapter, "cannot rewrite history... However, the crime narrative offers comfort where medieval history does not" (194). Chapter 6 deals with famous historical figures who act as detectives. The most popular choice, Geoffrey Chaucer appears in many permutations from the clever, efficient bureaucrat of Gertrude and Joseph Clancy's Death is a Pilgrim: A Canterbury Tale to the hardboiled "protodemocratic" hero of Duane Crowley's Riddle Me a Murder (205). Other candidates include, in the order of presentation in McKendry, John Gower, Leonardo da Vinci (alone or along with Machiavelli in a rare "Holmes and Holmes" configuration [227]), Dante, Machiavelli, Hildegard of Bingen, and Lucrezia Borgia. The conclusion summarizes the findings of the monograph.

The cross-over appeal of medievalism extends to the style of the monograph under review. McKendry writes in a clear, learned way, making the book accessible to general audiences interested in the subject (an accessibility that the publisher has contributed to by issuing the title as a reasonably priced paperback). She gives succinct, reliable historical background when necessary, speaking for instance about the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 (108-109) or the long history of the "blood libel" (169-176). Additionally, the reader's journey through long lists of medievalist crime-fiction novels is eased by McKendry's willingness to highlight the shortcomings while not ignoring the fortes of even the least successful works. In Chapter 2, she speaks about Michael Jecks's Sir Baldwin Furnshill, an example of a hardboiled male detective, who experiences what we now call the post-traumatic stress disorder. McKendry admires the portrayal of "the psychological damage that the often idealized and sanitized chivalric past doubtlessly inflicted about its participants," but she also critiques "both limited writing and contextual heavy-handedness" (63). The variety of sources in the bibliography reflect author's generosity, curiosity, and resourcefulness. For a thorough study of her corpus of popular literature, McKendry consults not only still emerging scholarship but also book reviews in magazines, newspaper articles, and online writing on sites like Lesbrary and Medievally Speaking.

Many of McKendry's miniature readings in individual chapters bring up phenomena that postcolonial, queer, and disability theories are ideally positioned to illuminate. The author turns to some of these scholarly currents, as evident in her use of Carolyn Dinshaw. The plot summarized in the monograph provides much intriguing material. It turns out that Wales and other borderland spaces such as Sicily figure greatly in many of the novels. Ariana Franklin's Adelia Aguilar is a Sicilian physician of Greek background with religiously mixed adopted parents, a Christian mother and a Jewish father. Her assistant is Mansur, an Arab castrated by the Catholic Church to keep his singing voice (134). The Crusades feature prominently in a number of male investigator's background stories. Even Brother Cadfael, a Welshman at a monastery in Shrewsbury, has a half-Syrian son from his previous crusading life (31). Again medievalists, amateurs and professionals alike, appear to have similar goals: here, to reveal a more global Middle Ages than previously imaginable.

They also expose the audience to a less heteronormative Middle Ages. Jeri Westerson's Crispin Guest has an existential crisis when he finds himself attracted to Julian, the son of a visiting Jewish doctor. After being reassured by none other than John/Eleanor Rykener, a bisexual trans sex worker (and a real historical person), Crispin discovers that Julian is Julianne. While McKendry argues that "Westerson...ultimately forecloses the productive possibilities of Crispin's queerness" and that at the end he merely learns to be tolerant of those different from him (56-58), Crispin's attraction to the female transvestite still counts as queer, although not necessarily gay. The British immigrant writer in Spain, David Penny has created a surgeon investigator Thomas Berrington who serves the next-to-last sultan of Granada. Although not approving of the practice, Thomas develops a more efficient, humane method of castrating slaves for his lord's harem. One of the eunuchs whom he creates, Jorge becomes his assistant (74). The centrality of non-normative sexuality and gender expression in medievalist crime narratives leads me to a common observation about detectives in general remaining sexually or romantically unattached (think of the canonical ones: Sherlock, Poirot, Miss Marple). Nothing is supposed to distract from their mission, and their marked apartness easily reads as queer.

Disabled characters appear in many novels, in rather visible positions. Jason Vail's coroner-detective Stephen Attebrook has an assistant, Harry, "an acerbic, legless beggar," who makes him a prosthetic for his injured foot that allows him to ride more comfortably (51). Maureen Ash's one-eyed sleuth Bascot de Marins adopts a mute Sicilian orphan (104). Roberta Gellis's Magdalene la Bâtarde, a widowed ex sex worker, opens "a house of needleworkers"--in actuality, a brothel--where she employs women, most of them mentally or physically disabled (150). Due to the scope and nature of the project, "a critical overview" of a genre of popular writing much neglected by scholarship, the author lacks space for more extensive analysis. Other researchers ought to take up the challenge and study individual novels or series through such productive frameworks as postcolonialism, queerness, disability, and others. With a sufficient distance from our own global pandemic, scholars might begin exploring the role of the Plague in many medievalist crime fictions.

After finishing Medieval Crime Fiction, I was left with a question. How would medieval readers understand the opus of medievalist mystery writers? Examples of medieval texts that fit some conventions of the modern genre sans "the investigative process," all Middle English romances, appear in footnote one to chapter 1 (245). Unfortunately, they are not explored further. Shared attitudes toward literary transformations of the past might provide a partial answer. McKendry, frustrated by the large number of detectives belonging to the clergy who disregard religious belief, explains that "...medieval heretics were very rarely atheists, or even agnostics; they were, for the most part, members of sects that disagreed with certain doctrines of the Church. As such, it seems credible that the vast majority of medieval society firmly believed in the possibility of both divine and diabolical intervention into human affairs" (90). An apparent anachronism like atheist or agnostic monks causes problems for scholars today. Non-academic readers, too, enjoy entering an intricately built past universe and potentially find anachronism distracting; on the other hand, an overabundance of accurate detail suffocates the detection plot (110).Medieval audiences would understand that we turn to stories from the past to think through the concerns of our own historical moment. If that is an anachronism, it is a type widely spread in much literature of the Middle Ages (and beyond). McKendry acknowledges as much enpassant, when she speaks of Philippa Morgan's novels (a pseudonym of Philip Gooden): "Gooden's fiction embraces the medieval tradition of appropriating other texts and rewriting the narratives as a response to a new cultural context" (202). We should also keep in mind that something is always excluded from the archive, whether because it did not materially survive or was never permitted to enter it.

As McKendry demonstrates in her valuable book, medievalist detective novels can help us--professionals and amateurs, for we can be both--construct and reconstruct a world "we love...but we know we do not want to return there" (239). I would add that, whatever our feelings toward the five-hundred-year period, we cannot return there for two paradoxical reasons: because that world is lost forever, and because it never ended.