Mike Ripley's Crime File - April 2008
'The Manor of Death' by Bernard Knight; 'Murder's Immortal Mask' by Paul Doherty; 'A Killing Frost' by R D Wingfield; 'Dog Eats Dog' by Iain Levison
History has never been more topical, at least in crime fiction terms. This summer will see a raft of Victorian mysteries but this month, two of our leading history-mystery masters go further back than that.
The undisputed Lord of the Manor when it comes to medieval murder is former Home Office pathologist Professor Bernard Knight and he shows why in his new novel The Manor of Death (Simon & Schuster, £18.99). Not only does he demonstrate a detailed knowledge of 12th century Devon, but he is also quite an expert on dead bodies, as you might expect from someone who has conducted several thousand autopsies for real.
Knight's hero is Sir John de Wolfe, a king's 'Crowner or, as we would say today, a Coroner, and his latest case revolves around a corpse washed ashore near Axmouth in Devon which, at the time, was a large and important port for England's vital export trade in wool.
The Manor of Death is not just a medieval whodunit, but also a fascinating (and painless) history lesson, which offers insights into the barbaric "trial by ordeal" to judge guilt or innocence and Richard the Lionheart's showpiece castle on the Seine in France. And those who, like me, thought that a "posse" was something invented for cowboy films, will be illuminated to learn that the term originated during the reign of Henry II.
Paul Doherty is also adept at the medieval mystery but in Murder's Immortal Mask (Headline, £19.99) he takes us back to fourth century Rome where a mass murderer is on the loose, preying on prostitutes in the red light district.
In one of his most enthralling books to date (which is saying something), Doherty gives us a fascinating picture of a Roman Empire on the verge of splitting politically which also has to come to terms with the new Christian religion - until then, quite literally an underground movement. The city of Rome itself is described, warts and all, in graphic, often violent, terms and comes complete with a self-styled criminal 'Godfather' in the shape of 'Lord Charon'.
Lord of a very different manor is Detective Inspector Jack Frost, the scruffy, much put-upon but ultimately un-crushable policeman invented by R D Wingfield and made a national institution by the television portrayal by David Jason.
The Frost of the books is rougher, tougher and cruder than the Frost of the small screen, but just as unforgettable a character. In A Killing Frost (Bantam, £14.99) multiple cases - murder, burglary, a paedophile ring, the abduction of a young girl - pile up on an already exhausted Jack Frost, who also had to deal with a new boss determined to hound him out of the Denton precinct.
Frost comes through, by the skin of his teeth, and this latest book is a fitting tribute because sadly, it will be the last, following the death of author Rodney Wingfield last year.
Dog Eats Dog (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99) has itself got a history almost as good as the most convoluted murder mystery. The author, Iain Levison, was born in Scotland but emigrated to the USA; then returned to the UK in order to join the British Army, where he served in Peru! Now back living in America, after a spell has a crab fisherman in Alaska, he wrote his first crime novel which found a publisher in France and now appears in Britain for the first time - in translation!
Whatever tortuous route it took to get here, however, Dog Eats Dog was worth waiting for, with a plot which kicks off with a bank robbery gone wrong that is worthy of comparison with Elmore Leonard. This is a sharp, smart, pistol-crack of a book which moves at a terrific pace and has three very well drawn central characters, none of whom you are sure you can trust.
The much travelled author, Iain Levison is already a cult crime writer in America and France and certainly deserves to be one in his country of origin.
Mike Ripley is the author of the 'Angel' series and writes a regular column for the Birmingham Post.