Wessex in Fiction: The Crowner John Mysteries

The office of crowner (coroner) was established during the reign of Richard I, to protect the financial interests of the Crown in each county of England. One of the coroner's duties was to investigate the cause of a death believed to be unnatural, once the hue and cry had been raised and it is this function that came to dominate, and which survives into the present day.

Into this historical milieu comes Crowner John, the title character of a series of historical mystery novels and short stories by Bernard Knight, himself a former Home Office pathologist. John De Wolfe returns from the Crusades in 1194, and is appointed Keeper of the Pleas of the King's Crown (custos placitorum coronas) for the County of Devon by Richard the Lionheart. Over the course of (so far) 15 novels and 4 short stories, he investigates a variety of crimes from his base in Exeter. Making him a coroner not only provides some fascinating historical context for the origins of the office, but also helps to overcome a recurrent problem in many long-running murder mystery series: finding a plausible reason why the protagonist keeps stumbling across dead bodies. Remember all the jokes about Jessica Fletcher, the character played by Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote, being a serial killer? No such explanations are needed here, as investigation of these murders is part of Crowner John's job description.

The Crowner John mysteries are available wherever books are sold.

Wessex in Fiction: The Well-Beloved

The Well-Beloved was Thomas Hardy's penultimate novel, though it was only collected into book form in 1897, after Jude the Obscure had already been published, having previously been serialised in the Illustrated London News five years earlier. After the scandal surrounding Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Hardy had promised his editors that this work would be suitable for all the family. Modern audiences might disagree, but more on that anon.

Scculptor Jocelyn Pierston returns from That London to his home on the Isle of Slingers (Portland). The novel follows him at the ages of 20, 40 and 60, falling in love with three generations of the same family. Hardy classified the story as a fantasy, evoking the myth of Pygmalion nearly two decades before George Bernard Shaw named a play after its main character.

It is a sign of changing attitudes that Tess treating a woman who had been seduced and abandoned by her lover as a blameless victim was hugely controversial in its day, while a 60-year-old man getting engaged to the granddaughter of his college-age girlfriend was not. It seems in that in late Victorian England, you were on far safer ground treating women as mythic archetypes than as flesh-and-blood human beings.