Writing a mystery set in medieval times poses certain challenges for the writer—the need to research daily life in that era, the need to know which crimes were common at that time, and the need to decide how faithful to be to the vocabulary and speech patterns of the times.
Yet the popularity of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and other mysteries set in the Middle Ages proves that readers enjoy being transported back to medieval Europe.
The challenges become greater when setting a medieval crime, such as the theft and trafficking of religious relics, in modern-day Europe. This is the premise of Let These Bones Live Again, the third mystery in my Christopher Worthy/Father Fortis Series (Coffeetown Press, 2018).
One such challenge is helping readers understand the thriving market for relics in the Middle Ages. Readers can easily accept that gold, silver, or precious jewels would tempt thieves from any era, including our own. But most modern readers are unaware that religious relics, such as pieces of bone, teeth, hair, fingernails, pieces of clothing, as well as writings from saints, once had value exceeding that of precious metals and jewels.
A second challenge facing the writer of this kind of mystery is convincing readers that a crime relegated to the distant past, such as stealing and trafficking relics, could resurface today. Readers would find the stealing of fashion designs from Milan or schematics for future Ferraris plausible, but the theft of medieval relics in modern-day Italy? Hardly. The medieval relics joke—if all the supposed pieces of Christ’s true cross could be brought together, those fragments could build a ship—might have been hilarious in times past, but the joke today is almost incomprehensible.
Of course, the greater the challenge for the writer, the greater the reward for the reader—as long as the writer deals with these challenges successfully. Yes, the medieval period is unlike our own time, but that is what makes it fascinating. If the writer can transport readers into another time period, such as the medieval period, without burdening those readers with too much historical information, the experience will be informative and enjoyable.
From taking college students to Italy many times, as well as living in Italy on a sabbatical, I realized that Venice would be the perfect location for a mystery with this premise.
First, the atmosphere and architecture of Venice retain numerous examples of life in the Middle Ages and the centuries immediately following. The city has so few examples of modern architecture that they seem out of place and out of time.
Second, as has been true throughout Venice’s history, watercraft is the only means of transportation available. And during the nighttime and early morning hours, there is little of that. Residents of Venice and tourists primarily walk, as Venetians have done since the city was founded. In the fog that shrouds Venice on many nights and early mornings, footsteps and other sounds, such as doors being opened and closed, are amplified. Persons negotiating the narrow walkways and blind corners of Venice in the dead of night might well feel the hair on their necks standing up as they wonder “are those sounds behind or in front of me, to the left or to the right? Are they friendly or threatening?” Don’t Look Now, a movie from the 70s, offers a perfect example of the city’s eeriness.
Third, the history of Venice is closely intertwined with the issue of relics. The patron saint of Venice is St. Mark, but this wasn’t always the case. Venice was originally protected by St. Theodore, a military saint. But in 828 CE, the relics of St. Mark were transferred, or what is technically known as translated, from Alexandria in Egypt to Venice. The justification for this act, which from another perspective could be considered theft, was that the relics of St. Mark would be safer in Venice than in Muslim-controlled Egypt.
There is a more recent historical factor linking religious relics and Venice. In 1204-5 CE, Venetians set sail in the fourth Crusade (or fifth, depending on how the various Crusade campaigns are counted) with the goal of wresting the sacred sites of the Holy Land from Muslim control. But these 13th century Crusaders never arrived in the Holy Land. Instead, they stopped in Constantinople and laid waste to the city. Besides pillaging Constantinople, still considered by those living in the East to be the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the marauding Crusaders set up a Latin Patriarchate (one obedient to Rome and the Papacy) in place of the eastern Orthodox leadership. The invaders vandalized the churches of the city, taking precious gold and silver items along with icons and relics of eastern Christian saints.
And where did those relics end up? They were brought back by Venetian sailors and soldiers to their home city, where they are, to this day, housed in the numerous churches of the city.readers will feel the uncanny chill of Venice’s foggy walkways and alleyways at night as they come face to face with the dark side of religious fervor.
Because of these historical factors, setting a mystery centered on the theft and trafficking of religious relics in Venice seemed a natural fit. All the churches in Venice, as well as the churches on the nearby islands of the lagoon, especially on the islands of Torcello, Murano, and Burano, have relics housed within their altars, in crypts, and, occasionally, in separate rooms set aside for reliquaries (relics set in ornate displays).
In addition, visits to many of these churches (college students favor “pub crawls,” while I prefer “church crawls”) made it evident that only the largest churches of Venice have visible security. Most of the smaller churches of Venice and those on islands in the lagoon are open during the day without guards or sophisticated surveillance equipment.
Taking these factors together—Venice’s history of dealing in stolen and fraudulent relics, the presence of hundreds of relics in Venetian churches to this day, and the vulnerability of these churches to theft—I realized that Venice already provided “means” and “opportunity” for the crime I had in mind. What was left for me to invent was “motive,” in this case, a modern motive for a medieval crime.
By the end of a mystery, readers should not only know who the killer is, but also learn about a topic previously unknown. Miss Marple not only finds the killer, but also offers an insight into English village life in the early twentieth century. Similarly, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night not only discover who is the mysterious prankster afflicting a woman’s college, but also enlighten readers on life for intelligent women within the male academic bastion of Oxford. So also, in Grantchester of PBS fame, Father Sidney Chambers not only hunts down the murderer with the help of a police detective, but also reveals the ecclesiastical difficulties of an Anglican priest of the 1950s in a secret relationship with a married woman.
With Let These Bones Live Again, readers will follow the trail of two mysteries: the theft of precious objects and the suspicious death of foreign millionaires in Venice. But in the process, readers will feel the uncanny chill of Venice’s foggy walkways and alleyways at night as they come face to face with the dark side of religious fervor.