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The Poisoned Chalice
A Crowner John Mystery
By Bernard Knight

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The Poisoned Chalice
A Crowner John Mystery
By Bernard Knight
F. A. Thorpe - Large Print Edition, (2000)
ISBN: 0-7089-4284-9
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction

Other Editions: Standard Print - Hardcover | Standard Print - Paperback

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - September 29, 2001

The Poisoned Chalice is not only a phenomenal mystery, but it is also a superb work of historical fiction. In this book, Bernard Knight takes us to the year 1194. The story is set in Exeter, and the setting and atmosphere are so finely crafted that the reader can almost smell the manure in the midden piles! This is a very fast paced and exiting story, so plan on setting aside a few hours so that you can read the book straight through.

Exeter, in December of 1194 was not a safe place to be a young woman. First Christina Rifford, a young seventeen year old, well-bred girl who is about to be married, is raped. Next, Lady Adele de Courcy is found dead, her body buried under a pile of rubbish, in an unsavory part of town. Like Rifford, Courcy was young and soon to be married. The task of solving these heinous crimes is delegated to Sir John de Wolfe, the local crowner (coroner). The coroner in 1194 is not the same as a modern coroner. In 1194, a coroner was charged with recording all serious crimes and legal issues that need to be adjudicated by the King's judges. During this period, the coroner was a senior, county level law officer. The only law officer over him was the sheriff, but occasionally their jobs overlapped. For deWolfe this was a constant problem, not only because of jurisdictional conflicts with the local sheriff, Richard de Revelle, but because he was also married to the sheriff's sister.

De Wolfe is a marvelous detective. Before becoming the coroner, he had been a soldier and had fought in the Holy Land. He is also a delightfully worldly man, with worldly sins. Whenever possible he leaves his wife's side, and relaxes with Nesta, a Welsh tavern owner who sidelines as his mistress. In his investigations, de Wolfe is aided by a defrocked priest, Thomas de Peyne, and Gywn of Polruan, his friend and bodyguard. And unlike most men of his day, de Wolfe is trying to better himself by learning to read. In all, he is a likeable and engaging character, who is enhanced by the colorful cast of characters that surround him.

Shortly after Rifford is raped, the local silversmith, Godfrey Fitzosbern falls under suspicion for being the perpetrator. Whereas as the sheriff would be happy simply to torture a confession from the silversmith, de Wolfe is more interested in learning the truth. But by taking the time to learn the truth, he is also saddle with the task of protecting Fitzosbern from not only the sheriff, but also from the fiancees of the aggrieved women. To complicate de Wolfe's life, he also has to deal with a handful of drowned sailors and the goods that washed ashore from their ship after if foundered during a storm. De Wolfe must answer the questions, where did the goods disappear too, and did the sailors really drown?

From beginning to end, this is a riveting tale. Knight, a retired professor of forensic pathology, has an enchanting gift bring the past to life. He uses modern dialog, yet infuses it with such a sense of authenticity that you can imagine the words being spoken by the inhabitants of 1194 Exeter. From a literary standpoint, this novel is well plotted, and the mystery complex enough to intrigue any mystery buff - even those who might at first be put off by the historical setting. The Poisoned Chalice is greatly enhanced by maps and a detailed glossary that clearly explains the many terms and concepts used in this novel, which the average reader might be unfamiliar with. In all, this is a wonderfully delightful mystery that has a satisfying yet unexpected ending.

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The Poisoned Chalice can be purchased directly from Ulverscroft, the parent company of F. A. Thorpe.

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