29 July, 2010

History by Novel

The Death of the Red King

A novel, or an historical study disguised as a novel, certainly a piece of imaginative research and interpretation into one of MediƦval Western Europe’s mysteries, the accidental death of William II of England in the New Forest. Every schoolboy (and girl, but i have to go with the phrase) knows about the death of William Rufus, that he was killed while hunting, perhaps by one of his retainers, that his brother Henry raced to Winchester to secure the treasury and, hence, the crown (you know, sadly, as i write this i’m starting to wonder, do today’s children know this? are they taught this in school? i have a strong suspicion that JAG might well not know about Rufus, about either of the Conqueror’s sons, at all. Oh dear) before anyone else could usurp it. Doherty has written his novel as told by Eadmer, Anselm’s biographer and follower, during the last few days of Anselm’s life, as he conducts a brief investigation into the death of the late, unlamented king.

Unlamented, except, for Doherty, by Anselm, who claims that they were members of the same tithing and, therefore, he was responsible for Rufus, even though in dispute with him for much of the time. Clearly Dohety takes his history very seriously, as he gives a list of sources at the end of each chapter(!), often with little comments onthem, perhaps identifying their usefulness or reliability. His conclusion, while not completely new, is different from the usual received wisdom, and therefore pleasing. The denouement is clever, as Anselm has drawn todether all his suspects and he plays with them in a nice echo of someone such as Poirot, several hundred years early.