28 January, 2007

The Dawn Stag, by Jules Watson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Orion, 2006, ISBN: 0-7528-7761-5.

Set in what is now Scotland in AD 81-83, The Dawn Stag is the sequel to The White Mare, and continues the story of Rhiann, Eremon and their friends, families and enemies where the first novel left off. All the main characters are fictional, with important secondary roles for the historical Agricola (Roman governor of Britain) and Calgacus (leader of the Caledonian* tribes).

Rhiann, priestess and princess of the Epidii tribe in what is now modern Argyll, is now happily united with her husband, the exiled Irish prince Eremon. Eremon is accepted as warleader (not king) of the Epidii, and has alliances with some of the tribes of the far north-west and with Calgacus, the powerful king of the area around modern Inverness in north-east Scotland. In the south, the Roman governor Agricola has received orders from Rome to invade Alba* and complete the conquest of Britain. The stage is set for a final confrontation between Rome and the tribes of Alba under Eremon’s leadership - but Rhiann and Eremon also have to contend with betrayals, intrigues and personal dilemmas closer to home.

The core of the story is the development and maturation of Rhiann and Eremon’s marriage, shaping and shaped by the events they live through and the actions they take. Self-esteem, spiritual fulfilment, personal development and the finding of personal happiness in the face of defeat form the key themes. The strong religious and spiritual component in The White Mare receives even greater emphasis in The Dawn Stag, so that in places the novel borders on fantasy. Readers who are annoyed by features like near-miraculous spiritual healing, a shamanic journey to the Otherworld, telepathy under the influence of drugs, visions and prophecy should consider themselves warned. The title, The Dawn Stag, refers to a religious rite.

War and tribal politics also play a large part in the plot. Wicked King Maelchon, the scheming druid Gelert, treacherous Samana and the ambitious young lord Lorn all reappear to keep the story moving, to say nothing of the Roman army. The big set-piece battle scene of Mons Graupius** is given its full weight, told from the viewpoints of multiple characters with fast cutting between them. I thought this worked very well, managing to convey the immediacy of each character’s experience and still give the reader an overview of the battle as a whole.

Vivid and realistic description makes the Scottish landscape almost another character. Even the midges get a mention (one of my tests for realism in any description of the Highlands!), along with more glamorous wildlife such as stags and eagles. As with The White Mare, details of day-to-day life such as a food, clothing and domestic life are lovingly portrayed. (Did you ever wonder how grain was stored in the Iron Age? You'll find the answer here).

The Dawn Stag is told mainly from the Alban side, with occasional forays into the Roman point of view. Agricola is the only fully developed character on the Roman side, and Roman life and culture is sketched in with a few details, reflecting the greater weight given to the Alban side of the story.

Like its predecessor, this is a very long novel (over 650 pages) with a leisurely pace. Now that I know the characters, the slow read did not irritate me as much as it did in the first novel, though I would still have preferred the story to move faster. I think readers would be well advised to read The Dawn Stag and The White Mare as a pair, since most of the plot points begun in the first book run through into the second for their resolution. Taken together, I estimate the two novels add up to about 440,000 words. For comparison, I estimate The Lord of the Rings (excluding the Appendices) at about 530,000 words by the same method, so be prepared for a long read. The reward is to have all the plot threads tied up, including a moving epilogue about Rhiann and Eremon’s later life together, rather reminiscent of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen from the appendices to Lord of the Rings. There is apparently a follow-up, The Boar Stone, due for publication late in 2007 to make up a trilogy. I can make a guess at its likely connection with the preceding two, based on the title and the prophecy at the end of The Dawn Stag, but it is set several centuries later and must involve a new group of characters.

A helpful Historical Note sets out some of the known history from the period, and confesses to having taken some liberties. One of these is the night attack on the Ninth Legion (not the same incident as that underlying Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, though the legion might have been forgiven for thinking that Scotland had it in for them). In The Dawn Stag the incident is a victory for Eremon and the Alban warriors, whereas Tacitus (scroll down to 26) says it was turned into a Roman victory by Agricola’s timely arrival with reinforcements. The author justifies the change on the grounds that Tacitus may have been eulogising Agricola, who was his father-in-law, and this may very well be true. Tacitus may well have put Agricola’s deeds in the most favourable light. As it happens, I’m not convinced that Tacitus would have gone as far as to turn a defeat into a victory, given that he was writing only a few years after the events and any of Agricola’s veterans would be able to prove him wrong. But who’s to say? Another change that puzzled me more, from a story structure point of view, was the placing of the battle of Mons Graupius in summer instead of autumn. I was expecting the victorious Romans to follow up the battle in the rest of the summer (as Tacitus says they would have done had the battle not happened at the end of the campaigning season), yet the novel doesn’t even touch on any post-Mons Graupius fighting. So why move the date of the battle, if the plot isn’t going to make use of the revised date? (Suggestions welcome – I’m genuinely puzzled about this).

Epic story of love, war and spiritual fulfilment set against the background of the Roman invasion of Scotland in 83 AD.

Has anyone else read it?

* The novel uses Alba as the name for what is now Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde. Tacitus refers to the area by the name of Caledonia.
**Location uncertain. The conventional identification is the hill of Bennachie near Aberdeen, and The Dawn Stag follows this. For other suggested locations, see Wikipedia.

24 January, 2007

Five Facts meme

Constance tagged me to do the ‘Five Crazy Facts About Me’ meme. I’m not big on memes, as I can never think of anything interesting to say about me (certainly can’t match Sarah J, Susan, Gabriele and Constance on this one). However, Alianore had the idea of doing the meme for someone interesting from history (Edward II, in her case), which is a lot more promising. So, here are five Very Boring Facts about me, followed by Five Facts about someone much more interesting.

Five Very Boring Facts about me

1. I’m a scientist who’s equally interested in history. This seems quite normal to me, but apparently they are supposed to be mutually exclusive.

2. I love moors and mountains, but live in one of the flattest regions of Britain.

3. I wear my hair in the same style as a woman buried in 590 AD on the Isle of Man. She had a single plait lying over her right shoulder. I wonder if whoever buried her placed it there, or if her plait always lay over that shoulder because she was right-handed?

4. I like ironing. Provided there’s something interesting to listen to on the radio.

5. I write fiction (actually, that probably counts as crazy)

(That should teach you all never to bother tagging me again!)

Five Facts about someone from history

1. He’s the patron saint of tramps

2. He owed his life on at least one occasion to a woman’s powers of persuasion

3. His reign was such a byword for good government that a century after his death it was said that under his rule a woman could carry her newborn babe across the island from sea to sea without the least fear of harm

4. At least four different stories are recorded about his conversion to Christianity, which is rather a lot.

5. The Pope sent his wife a present of a silver mirror and a gold and ivory comb. (One hopes that this wasn’t a comment on the lady’s appearance or grooming, or her vanity)

19 January, 2007

January recipe: Seville orange marmalade

Marmalade attracts myths. According to a Radio 4 documentary last year, the growers who ship Seville oranges to Britain by the ton every January are baffled as to what the British can possibly want with all these oranges that are too bitter to eat, and are convinced that they are used in a secret process for manufacturing gunpowder.

Another oft-quoted myth is that marmalade was invented by a French court cook trying to produce something to tempt the palate of the young Mary Queen of Scots during one of her childhood illnesses, and derives from the French “Marie est malade”. Antonia Fraser dismisses this charming story as a fable in her biography of Mary, saying that the word was in existence much earlier and is derived from the Portuguese word for quince, ‘marmelos’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary agrees with her, as does Wikipedia. And apparently Samuel Pepys’s wife was making Marmelat of Quince in 1663.

At some point (and I haven’t tried to find out when), the bitter quince was replaced by bitter Seville oranges, and Seville marmalade has graced British breakfast tables ever since. The story goes that Seville marmalade was invented by a Dundee grocer’s wife, Janet Keillor, in 1797. A storm-battered ship took refuge in Dundee harbour, and its captain was eager to sell his perishable cargo of oranges for whatever price he could get before they decayed. Ever one for a bargain, a canny local grocer named James Keillor bought the lot at a knock-down price, reckoning that he’d have no difficulty selling cheap oranges in Dundee in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, when his wife unpacked the first crate it turned out that he wasn’t quite as canny as he thought. He’d forgotten to check what variety the oranges were, and they were Seville oranges, famously inedible (try eating one, and you will see what I mean).

But Janet was a true Scots lass and not about to see good money go to waste. Undaunted, she decided to turn the unsaleable oranges into marmalade. The crestfallen James was despatched back to the harbour to buy a shipload of sugar, while Janet rounded up all her female acquaintance and set them to work. Marmalade comes in two basic varieties, the Silver Shred type (elegant slivers of citrus zest suspended in a transparent gel) that requires painstaking removal of the pith, and the thick-cut type that bungs in the entire fruit, pith and all, minus only the pips. Even with the entire membership of the Dundee chapter of the Women's Institute on hand, processing a shipload of oranges would be a tall order, so Janet sensibly chose a thick-cut recipe to minimise the work. The resulting marmalade was sold through their grocery, found its way to London, became a resounding success, and Keiller’s* Dundee Marmalade has been made ever since.

This delightful tale is just as much a myth as the Mary Queen of Scots connection (see Wikipedia for the small grain of truth in it), but never mind. I always think of Janet Keillor, mythical or not, when I’m surrounded by chopped oranges, sugar, jars and bubbling pans in the middle weekend of January, and reflect that at least I haven’t got a whole shipload to do! Here’s the recipe:

Thick-cut Seville orange marmalade

1 lb (approx 0.5 kg) Seville oranges
1 lemon
2 lb (approx 1 kg) sugar
2 pints water

Slice the oranges and cut each slice into chunks of the size you would be happy to find on your toast in the morning, removing the pips as you go. (Removing the pips is fiddly so a food processor doesn’t speed this step up much, even if you've got one. I recommend you find something to listen to on the radio or a CD and turn it on before you start).

Do the same with the lemon.

Tie the pips into muslin bags. It doesn't have to be muslin; I sometimes use pieces of old cotton sheet or cotton handkerchief. The key requirements are: cotton or linen cloth (synthetics may not react well to the high temperatures); white or cream (some dyes are soluble, and you probably don’t want psychedelic colours); clean. I use pieces about 3-4 inches square, heap the pips in the middle, and tie the diagonally opposite corners together in pairs to make a Dick Whittington-style bundle.

Put the chopped fruit, the water and the bags of pips into a large bowl and stand overnight.

Next morning, put the contents of the bowl in a large saucepan, bring to the boil, and simmer gently until the peel is soft and the volume is about halved (approx. 1 to 1.5 hours).

Add the sugar and a small piece of butter to the pan.

Bring to the boil, and boil vigorously for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Don’t lean over the pan, and keep any children out of the way. It may spit and I swear that boiling marmalade was the inspiration for napalm).

Test for set by dropping a teaspoon of the marmalade mix onto a cold plate.** It will form a pool (if it forms a bead, your marmalade is a little over-cooked – take it off the heat immediately and go to the next step). Let the pool cool down (30 seconds or so), and prod it with your finger. If the surface doesn’t wrinkle, boil the marmalade for 2 minutes more and test again. If the surface wrinkles, the marmalade is done. Take it off the heat.

Fish out the bags of pips and discard them.

Pour into clean jars (the easiest way to do this is to pour the marmalade into a large heatproof jug, then use the jug to fill the jars. I recommend standing the jars on newspaper to make it easier to clean up any spills).

Cover the jars immediately. I use cling film and then a screw-top lid, but you can use paraffin wax, waxed paper, or whatever other method you choose. The important thing is to get an airtight seal while the marmalade is still hot. It’s hot enough to be effectively sterile when it’s just finished cooking, so if you seal it at that stage it will stay sterile and you can expect it to keep for years. If you let it cool down before you seal it, though, there’s a chance that mould spores will have floated in and the marmalade may spoil. (Very few bacteria can survive the high sugar concentration, but moulds are more resistant).

Let the jars cool, label them, and store in a cupboard until needed. It doesn’t need to mature, so you can start eating it the following morning, and it will keep for three years or more (as I know from having once found a forgotten jar at the back of a cupboard).

This quantity should make about four jars of marmalade. Seville oranges are typically available (in Britain; no idea about the rest of the world) during the last three weeks of January.

* Don’t ask me why there are two different spellings.

** If you have a sugar thermometer, I am told that it is useful in finding the setting point. I don’t own one, so I use this old-fashioned method of testing for set.

12 January, 2007

The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend, by Christopher Gidlow. Book review

Edition reviewed: Sutton Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-7509-3418-2

“Arthur was a great king. He ruled a land of knights in armour, damsels in distress, dragons and derring-do, home of Merlin the Magician and Morgan le Fay. He was born in Tintagel, became king by a combination of sword, stone and sorcery, and ruled from the castle of Camelot. At his Round Table sat Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and Sir Galahad, seekers of the Holy Grail. Finally, in tragedy, the love of Lancelot and Guenevere brought down the whole kingdom, leaving Arthur sleeping in the Isle of Avalon.

Did this King Arthur really exist? Almost certainly not. He was defined by writers of romance fiction in the twelfth century and refined through the Middle Ages. He inhabited a fabulous world based on that of his medieval audience. It was in this form that Arthur was revived by the Victorians and entered the public imagination.

Could this fantastic king be based on historical reality?”

These paragraphs begin Christopher Gidlow’s book, and it is the latter question that he sets out to answer.

The first part of his book is a survey of the earliest historical sources to mention Arthur and/or his battles. Three sources mention Arthur by name, the Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin, the Historia Brittonum, and the Annales Cambriae. Two of these, Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, say that Arthur was the victorious commander at a battle named Badon, and two further sources, Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, mention the battle of Badon but do not mention the name Arthur. What do they actually say?

Y Gododdin mentions Arthur in a single stanza, comparing one of the poem’s fallen heroes to Arthur,

“He brought down black crows to feed before the wall
Of the city, though he was no Arthur.”

The dates of the battle being described and of the poem itself have been, and still are, the subject of much scholarly debate. Christopher Gidlow quotes linguistic analysis arguing that the oldest verses were composed in a language that pre-dates Old Welsh and thus dates to before the end of the 6th century AD, and these include the Arthur stanza. Arthur’s name is the rhyme for the name of the hero, so it is unlikely to have been added in at a later date. If one accepts this analysis, and I see no reason not to do so, a man named Arthur was considered a fitting comparison for a fallen warrior hero in the later sixth century. This would be consistent with a real historical Arthur, known to the poet and his intended audience, who had a successful military career before the poem was composed.

Historia Brittonum (sometimes called Nennius after the name attributed to its author in some – but not all – of the surviving versions of the text) says in its prologue that it was written in about 830 AD. Linguistic analysis similar to that mentioned above for Y Gododdin argues that some of its spellings for names and places are much older than its stated date of composition, and therefore that the writer was drawing on earlier written sources. Historia Brittonum is the source for the details of Arthur’s military career:

“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ["dux bellorum"]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor.”

Some of the battle locations can be identified with reasonable certainty, e.g. the ‘City of the Legion’ is referred to elsewhere in Historia Brittonum, in Annales Cambriae and by Bede, who helpfully tells us “which the English call Legacastir but the Britons more correctly call Carlegion”, and is probably Chester. Calidon is the Roman name Caledonia and presumably refers to somewhere in Scotland. Most of them are uncertain, and legions of enthusiasts have located them all over the country with varying degrees of plausibility. The most interesting thing about the list, as pointed out by Christopher Gidlow, is that it has no supernatural elements. Arthurian sceptics have used the line, “no one struck them down except Arthur himself” to dismiss the list as the mythical exploits of a superman, but I share Christopher Gidlow’s view that the phrase is more likely to reflect the common practice of referring to a victory as the general’s, taking the presence of his army for granted. If a modern writer says, “Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo”, we don’t imagine the two generals slugging it out in single combat, and there’s no particular reason to assume that the writer of Historia Brittonum did either. Historia Brittonum’s account is a prosaic description of the career of a successful military leader who won a lot of battles. For mythical and legendary elements, like dragons and a fatherless boy with the gift of prophecy, you have to look to the Historia’s description of Ambrosius Aurelianus, not to Arthur.

Annales Cambriae, ‘The Annals of Wales’ contain two entries referring to Arthur:

“516 The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.

537 The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”

Christopher Gidlow argues that the dates are unlikely to be accurate, partly because the Annals are set out in numbered decades and several of the decades have 9 years or 11 years instead of 10, with obvious potential for miscounting, and partly because the AD dating system was an innovation of Bede in the early 8th century. Prior to Bede the conventional way to reckon dates was by regnal years (“In the seventh year of the reign of King So-and-so”), much as Rome reckoned dates by reference to the serving consuls. Bede makes reference to both systems, and records the dates of important events like major synods according to numerous regnal year systems in different kingdoms (e.g. the Synod of Hatfield was held, “in the tenth year of the reign of King Egfrid of the Northumbrians; in the sixth year of King Ethelfrid of the Mercians....”etc). No wonder Bede felt the system could do with being tidied up if all the kingdoms were to be unified in one church; it was probably a little like railway time replacing local time in Britain during the nineteenth century. So AD dates attributed to events that pre-date Bede are most likely to have been estimated by a post-Bede scholar writing down material from older sources or oral tradition, and their accuracy (or otherwise) is a matter of conjecture. The important point is that the Annales Cambriae mention Arthur’s major battle from Historia Brittonum, and 20 years later record his death in a different battle. Again, there is nothing especially unusual or legendary about the entries. They are similar in form to other entries in the Annales, and don’t contradict Historia Brittonum.

Gildas and Bede both refer to the battle of Badon, but do not name its commander. Both sources (they are so similar that Bede probably based his account on Gildas) say that after Hengist and Horsa defeated Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus became the leader of the Britons and a period (length unspecified) of back-and-forth warfare began, which lasted up until the siege of Badon when the Britons won a resounding victory. If either source said explicitly that Ambrosius led the British side at Badon there would be a discrepancy with Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, but neither does. There seems to be no reason why Arthur could not have been the military commander at the battle even if Ambrosius was still overall ‘leader’, or there may have been a change of leader during the warfare preceding Badon.

This leads Christopher Gidlow to a rather exasperated section on double standards, where he makes the point that the documentary evidence for Maelgwn Gwynedd (usually identified with the Mailcun mentioned in Historia Brittonum and the Maglocunus castigated by Gildas) is no stronger than that for a historical Arthur. He concludes, “Historians cannot have it both ways..... If Maelgwn Gwynedd can be accepted on a balance of probabilities, then so should Arthur”. I share this view - I don’t mind a historian arguing that Source X is unreliable and should be treated with caution or disregarded altogether, but it does look like cheating when the same author then uses bits of the same source to support a different theory.

Christopher Gidlow concludes the first part with a summary of plausible roles for the figure of Arthur as recorded in these early sources. Arthur could have been a sub-king of a small region that was part of one of the larger kingdoms; a king of one of the kingdoms whose dynasties did not last into the Middle Ages; a high king with power over more than one kingdom; a military leader employed as a Magister Militum by a post-Roman provincial governor or a high king. Any or all of these would fit with the scanty records in the early sources, and Christopher Gidlow makes the important point that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The same man might have held different roles at different points in his life, or been different things to different people.

If one accepts that there was a military hero who led some or all of the British to victory against some or all of the Saxons in a battle at a place called Badon some time in the late 5th or early 6th century – which is not at all implausible – then one might as well accept the name given to him in the same sources and call him Arthur.

The second part of the book charts the development of the Arthur story in surviving Welsh medieval texts, notably the poems in the Black Book of Carmarthen, the stories of Culhwlch and Olwen and the Dream of Rhonabwy, the Triads, various Saints’ Lives, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which arguably is the text that shot Arthur to superstardom. In it, Christopher Gidlow shows how these later texts acquire the mythical trappings that have become so much a part of the Arthur story in the modern form summarised at the top of this post. He makes a convincing case for seeing the process as one by which legendary tales accreted around a historical figure, in the same way as Roman emperor Magnus Maximus became the subject of a dream legend in the Dream of Macsen Wledig, rather than one by which a pseudo-historical figure was invented out of folk tales.

What I chiefly liked about The Reign of Arthur was its approach of starting from the sources, setting out what they say in a reasonably logical order, and then putting together an interpretation. It makes a refreshing change from proposing a theory and then quoting sources to support it. I once tried assembling the Arthur sources in a similar fashion – though Christopher Gidlow has done it much more thoroughly than I could – and came to much the same conclusions as he has. Which is nice.

In common with much narrative non-fiction, the book doesn’t use footnotes to cite sources, which I find mildly annoying. However, the author does make an effort to say in the text where he got information from, which is very useful as it allows the reader to check the source material and decide whether to be convinced by the argument. For example, at one point he argues for a scribal error in Annales Cambriae to resolve a discrepancy with Bede over the date of the seventh-century battle of Chester (not the same as Arthur’s battle at the City of the Legion, though very possibly at a similar location). Because he quoted his sources, I could look up Bede’s description, and my reading is that Bede’s account can accommodate the Annales Cambriae date without needing to postulate a scribal error. So I disagree with the author on this point, but because I can see where it came from I can accept the rest of his argument. In fact, if anything I think my interpretation strengthens his point that the Annales can be regarded as a reasonably historical source. I find it much more convincing when I can follow the author’s logic like this.

A clear and scholarly survey of the historical source material for Arthur and its later development into legend.

Has anyone else read it? Or have an opinion on King Arthur?

07 January, 2007

The Tinner's Corpse: A Crowner John Mystery

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?