Sir John de Wolfe is the Crowner for Exeter and the surrounding lands, including Dartmoor. So when he is called to the site of a school where a body has been found, his job is to gather a group of men to make a determination of whether or not the person was killed by means natural or unnatural, and to assess fines should the person have been a Norman murdered by a Saxon. In practice Sir John also usually tracks down the murderers and brings them to justice with the help of his manservant, Gwyn, and his clerk, Thomas.
Called out to a school owned by his brother-in-law, Richard de Revelle, Sir John discovers a man who has been dead so long that his body has dried out and shrunken, like leather. No one can recall anyone missing from the area, and there are no signs of assault upon the corpse, so it is moved and brought down from its lefty perch in the rafters. Only then is the cause of death found- a iron nail or spike driven into the spine with such force that it penetrated the spinal column. The quickly assembled jury, on being shown the evidence, comes back with a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown.
In addition to the men who are working on the school, Sir John also asks his brother-in-law about the corpse, hoping he might know who it is. Richard says he doesn't know the man, but he certainly has ideas as to who put the corpse there. He blames Sir Nicholas of Arundel, a young outlawed knight who has a grudge against not only Richard, but his frequent comrade in crime and villainy, Henry de la Pomeroy. Both are supposed to be supporters of the King, Richard Coeur de Lion, but both men have thrown in their support and their lot with Richard's brother John de Mortain, also known as John Lackland, because he alone was left without a grant of land on the death of their father, King Henry.
Sir John, of course, wonders why this Sir Nicholas would have a grudge against the two men, and investigates the situation. It turns out that sir Nicholas was a crusader who went to fight the infidel in the Holy Land. He was gone for three years, but while he was away, Richard deRevelle and Henry de la Pomeroy had him declared dead and had his house and lands escheated to the sherriff at the time, who just so happened to be John Lackland. He, in turn, turned the land over to both of them. They seized the manor and threw out his wife and servants, taking it for themselves. However, he did return and found his wife no longer in residence.
Having a hot temper, Nicholas tried to throw the interlopers off his land, but de Revelle and Pomeroy sent a group of men to throw him off what was now their land. In the heat of an argument, violence erupted, and a man was killed in the battle. Revelle and Pomeroy used this to have Nicholas and his few followers outlaws, dooming them to a life on the wilds of Dartmoor, constantly hunted.
Sir John finally discovers the identity of the dead man, who was a craftmaster named Matthew Morcock. But he's not the only man to turn up dead. Another man is discovered on the road outside of Exeter- killed by strangulation, then bound to a tree with an iron chain. He is another craftsmaster, a glazier to Morcock's saddler.
Meanwhile, Nicholas of Arundel goes to Exeter to meet with his wife, who is living with a cousin of hers under an assumed name in Exeter. She wants more than anything else for her husband to be cleared of being an outlaw and to be together, but Nicholas can't go to the law- being an outlaw, he'd be killed as soon as he told anyone who he is. His wife, though, has heard that the local Crowner is an honest man, and a Crusader as well. She's befriended his wife, who might be asked to entreat her husband on Nicholas's behalf. Nicholas expresses hope and disappointment in equal measure. He's afraid that his wife will suffer on his behalf, because he is an outlaw, but Joan is determined to find some way to help her husband.
Sir John's wife, Matilda, often doesn't get along with her husband. She's a woman who likes outward appearances, is generally a snob, and clings piously to the church to assuage the disappointments in her life. But when she is attacked on coming home from church after a midnight mass, Sir John has nothing but love and support for her. Yes, he may have a roving eye and other mistresses, but he does still love his wife, even though she makes it hard for him. He's solicitous with her and stays by her bed as she recovers, while vowing to get the man who nearly strangled her. The miscreant who did so made it quite clear to her that she was being attacked because of the actions of her brother, and though Matilda has supported him in the past, she finds herself out of charity with her brother, and gives him the sharp side of her tongue.
So when Joan, Nicholas Arundel's wife, comes to Matilda with the tale of her husband's woe, Matilda is strongly in support of the younger woman. He promises to do all he can for Nicholas, although it will be hard to see him when John is an officer of the court, and Nicholas is an outlaw. Also, another corpse has turned up, this one with a rod of iron driven through his body, and the instrument of death came from Richard de Revelle's house. It's an iron rod from his gate. And yet again, the victim is another craftsmaster. And then there is a near miss with the fourth body- another craftsmaster nearly shot with an iron arrow-like device in his privy, and only saved because he had to duck out of the way of an overgrown tree branch.
But what sort of device could shoot an iron arrow, and who is behind these horrible attacks? Is it Nicholas de Arundell, or someone else? Could it be one of his supporters, or is there someone else who has a grudge against Richard de Revelle and Henry de la Pomeroy? What do the murdered craftsmen have in common, and why are they being attacked? What do they have to do with Revelle and Pomeroy, and can Sir John find the culpit behind the attacks before someone else he is close to is killed by the madman?
I very much enjoyed this book, which is the eleventh in the series. Here we get to see the further evolution of the characters. Yes, John and his wife share a rather acrimonious marriage, but they truly do care for each other beneath it all. Oftentimes, it seems that John would be much happier if his wife died and he could marry his lover, Nesta of the Bush, a tavern he frequents, but he still has feelings for his wife, even if her niggling and self-important ways get on his nerves.
And his wife, Matilda, finally seems to have had it with her brother. Though she has defended him, and fiercely, in the past, it's as if she can no longer stomach him or what he is accused of (and guilty of, although she will never admit it, not even to herself), which is quite a change from earlier in the series. I found this an interesting change in her character and relationship, and wonder how long it will last.
And, it can be hard to tell from the book. because it is never stated directly, but it sounds like the killer in this one invented the crossbow, or something very similar. Shorter iron arrow? Powerful spring? Well, it sounded crossbow-like to me. The mystery here is good, but the more interesting part of reading is seeing whether Richard de Revelle, long a thorn in John's side, will finally get his comeuppance and be killed. It certainly could happen at any of several points in the story, even though de Revelle is a coward.
I very much enjoyed this mystery. Bernard Knight does an excellent job evoking the medieval past, with its stinks, messes, fashions and even language- although as he himself notes, the language is not really exact, for this was middle English and would sound extremely incomprehensible to modern ears. As it is, many of the terms used are explained, though if you have read other books in this series you will have seen them before. An excellent mystery set in the past, well worth the read. Recommended.