Radio 4’s Saturday Play yesterday (6 January 2007) was an adaptation of a historical mystery novel, The Tinner’s Corpse by Bernard Knight. It’s available on Listen Again for a week, so you can still listen to it provided you do it before Saturday 13 January.
Set in Devon in 1195, it’s a little later than that doyen of the medieval mystery, the Brother Cadfael series. Instead of an ecclesiastic, the detective is a bluff no-nonsense knight, Sir John de Wolfe, coroner of Devon, the ‘Crowner John’ of the series title, aided by his trusty sidekick, the naive young clerk Thomas. Sir John shares his crusading background with Cadfael. Thomas wants to be a priest, but was thrown out of his training when the bishop caught him stealing a chaste – so Thomas insists – kiss from a girl.
The Tinner’s Corpse is set against the background of tin mining on Dartmoor, and as well as solving the murder mystery Crowner John and Thomas have their own personal problems to sort out. Here’s the blurb from the novel:
Crowner John is summoned to the bleak Devonshire moors to investigate the murder of the overman of a tin mining gang working for Walter Knapman, one of Devon's most powerful tin merchants. The case is puzzling, but things get even more confusing when Walter disappears. A decapitated body, a missing tinner, a disgruntled band of miners and a mad Saxon. How on earth can Crowner John sort all this out when his wife and mistress hate him, and his clerk is in the grip of a suicidal depression?The personal lives of Crowner John and Thomas are given at least as much attention as the mystery. Sir John is married, though his wife never made an appearance in the play, and engaged in a longstanding extramarital affair with beautiful red-headed Welsh tavern-keeper Nesta. (You guessed right, she has the fiery character to go with the red hair) He also has an irascible relationship with his brother-in-law, who is the Sheriff of Devon and a slimy political type with his fingers in the till. Thomas seems to be adolescent (I didn’t catch his exact age, but got the impression he was about sixteen), eager but inept, who takes everything terribly seriously. In a modern school he’d be the geeky kid with glasses who’s no good at games. I rather liked Thomas, though I could also see how his ineptitude might try Sir John’s less-than-limitless patience. All this gave the play a charming human touch, and it also seemed very well researched – I noticed no anachronistic names or events, and nothing that made me mutter, "Oh, please!".
By contrast, the mystery itself seemed quite slight. There’s a line in one of Dorothy L Sayers’ novels where the respected mystery writer Harriet Vane admits to Lord Peter Wimsey that she once devised a crime so fiendishly complicated that she could think of no way for her detective to solve it and had to fall back on the murderer’s confession. Well, The Tinner’s Corpse fell back on the murderer’s confession not once but twice. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the detective to have to do more detecting than that to solve a mystery, historical or otherwise. As the author, Bernard Knight, is a retired forensic pathologist, I was expecting the case to turn on some forensic detail, like the time of death or the type of murder weapon. Maybe such details were present in the original novel but deemed impractical on radio, or considered too gruesome for a Saturday afternoon audience? Or maybe The Tinner’s Corpse isn’t typical of the Crowner John mysteries. At any rate, the radio adaptation was pleasant company for an hour and half while doing the ironing and mending.
Did anyone else hear it? What did you think? Or if you’ve read the novels, what do you think of them?