AmeriCymru Interview With Bernard Knight 3/12/12
AmeriCymru: Hi, Bernard, and many thanks for agreeing to talk to AmeriCymru. In the course of a distinguished career as a forensic pathologist, medical doctor and barrister you have also found time to write more than 30 novels since 1963, in addition to radio and teleplays and non-fiction works. What was your main motivation when you began writing fiction? What inspired you?
Bernard: I suppose my literary career began when I was a medical student in Cardiff in 1949, which was after being first a farm worker in Gower and then a hospital lab tech. By default, I became editor of the student magazine, appropriately called ''The Leech'' - and as usual, being editor of any small publication meant you had to write most of it yourself. But novel writing started not from ''inspiration'', but boredom. When called up to the Royal Army Medical Corps for compulsory military service in 1956, I had not long been married and applied to stay in Britain – so with the usual military efficiency, they sent me to Malaya for three years! Here the bloody twelve-year ''Forgotten War'' against the communist terrorists was going on and I was posted to a small military hospital in North Malaya, a place a bit like MASH, complete with helicopters and a mad commanding officer!
My main recreation was reading books from the camp library – many were crime novels, but as the hospital pathologist, I found many of the forensic aspects so wildly inaccurate that I decided I could do better myself. I started writing one and when I came back to my first forensic job in London, I mentioned this to a court reporter, and was astonished to see my boast in the next day''s Daily Mirror!
The next day, I had a letter from a publisher asking to see my manuscript – I had only written a bit of it, so I dashed off the rest and he took it! It doesn''t happen like that these days!
After this first shot at crime fiction with ''The Lately Deceased'', I went on to write about half a dozen ''stand-alone'' novels, several based in South Wales. Following this, I also started writing scripts for radio plays for the BBC and then for television. I wrote the story-lines for a very popular BBC forensic series called The Expert, and did quite bit of TV work, even presenting some documentary stuff on forensic topics like skeletons. A few years ago, I was involved in two programmes where we examined the alleged bones of St David, kept in a chest behind the high altar at the cathedral in Pembrokeshire– unfortunately, we showed that they were six hundred years too recent to be our patron saint!
I did some Welsh Language programmes, too, though I''m not fluent, much to my sorrow. One was a series about spies at the missile range in West Wales and more recently I wrote the stories for Dim Clew, a forensic team game on S4C.
I even had a try at biography and came to New York to write the life story of Milton Helpern, the famous Chief Medical Examiner of NYC. The book, written as an autobiography, called Autopsy,was very successful, going into five editions and book clubs, though unfortunately my old friend Milton died just before publication.
As a full-time pathologist, working for the university and the Home Office, I had to do all my writing at night, sometimes until three in the morning – I once passed my resident mother-in-law, an early riser, on the stairs as I was going up and she was going down!
AmeriCymru: How do you choose your subjects and can you tell us a bit about your creative process?
Bernard: My abiding fascination with Welsh history tempted me to write my first historical novel Lion Rampant in 1972, the true tragic romance of Princess Nest and Owain ap Cadwgan. It''s still my favourite book, being so closely bound to real history. I followed this with another twelfth century yarn Madoc, Prince of America , about which more below. These two books really got me hooked on the twelfth century, which set the pattern for Crowner John.
The creative process is a bit of a myth in terms of ''inspiration'', in that once I get a general idea for a book, I first beaver away at the historical background, this research being the most interesting part of the job – in fact, I don''t really like the chore of writing, slogging away at a keyboard. It''s the research that grabs me, it took a year''s work to get the facts right for Lion Rampant.
The themes for the Crowner John books were very varied – the business of sanctuary, where criminals sought shelter in a church; tournaments ( the medieval equivalent of football, horse-racing and baseball); the harsh forest laws; witchcraft, piracy, tin-mining and of course, ever-present dominance of the Church.
I used to write a detailed synopsis of a book before I started, even if the finished product diverged considerably from it. I''ve got lazier now, but I still need to know where I''m going with a book, rather than the ''sit-down-and-hope-for-the-best'' approach that some writers seem to get away with.
I now start with a flow-diagram on a single sheet of paper, with characters called X,Y.Z, and build up a visual pattern with arrows for motives. Then I put names on the people and write a ''curriculum vita'' for each, so that I can establish continuity.
This is vital for a series like Crowner John, with fifteen books to handle. I have a large file which I call ''My Bible'', which has separate sections for the personal details of each character, then bits about costume, diet, locations, maps, etc, so that I can keep a grip on things. Even so, one makes slips and my many readers around the world are swift to let me know – for example John''s cook-maid was blonde in one book and brunette in another!
Anachronisms are another problem - I had an Email from somewhere in the world to tell me that I had screwed a booby trap to the lavatory wall, which was impossible because screws weren''t invented until the 14th century!
Even in dialogue, anachronisms are hard to avoid – can you say in a 1195 book that someone was a ''sadist'' – or a man was ''mesmerised'', when those eponymous words were still centuries in the future?
The hardest part of a book is the ending, which causes many otherwise good books to fall flat. In crime books, the old standby, the ''denoument'' beloved of Hercule Poirot, with the suspects gathered together in the drawing-room, is quite unrealistic in real life, but there is only a limited range of outcomes – the culprit is either arrested, shot, commits suicide or conveniently has a fatal accident. It''s ''not cricket'' to let him get away with it!
AmeriCymru: You are perhaps best known as the author of the Crowner John Mysteries. Care to explain for our readers what a Crowner was and did?
Bernard: As a forensic pathologist, my instructions – and payment – for an autopsy came from the coroner, an official always either a lawyer or a doctor, responsible for investigating deaths which cannot be certified by a physician as natural causes. It was with the idea of becoming a coroner that I also studied to be a barrister, as an insurance against not getting a senior medical post.
The word ''coroner'' comes from the Latin ''Custos placitorum coronae'', meaning ''keeper of the pleas of the crown''. The office originated in 1194, partly as a means to attract fines from the population to help pay for the ransom of Richard the Lionheart, captured in Austria on his way home from the Third Crusade.
Anything 12th century was of interest to me and after a bit of academic delving, I had the idea to write a one-off book about a fictional first coroner. I would have liked to have set it in Wales, but that was impossible as in 1194, we were still independent and had our own laws of Hwyel Dda – so I had to go to England and I chose Devonshire.
Most of the characters I used were real and actually held the jobs I portrayed, like Sir Richard de Revelle, the sheriff . There was no record of the early coroners, so I invented Sir John de Wolfe, a returning Crusader who was looking for a job.
The title ''crowner'' is a bit of cheat for 1194, as it was not used until the 14th century as a slightly derogatory nickname – Shakespeare uses it in that sense in Hamlet.
The coroner''s job was to hold inquests on all deaths that did not occur in the bosom of the family, including murders, suicides, accidents etc – and where possible, bring any culprits to justice. He had to attend hangings to seize the property of felons, take confessions from sanctuary-seekers, attend ordeals, examine assaults, rapes, robberies, fires, wrecks, catches of the royal fish (whale and sturgeon) and many other legal tasks, most designed to gather money into the royal exchequer, rather than let the local lords continue to use their own courts. Essentially, his job was to record every legal event and present them to the king''s judges when they circulated around the county towns to administer justice.
It seemed a good basis for an investigative story, as at least it really was the coroner''s job – not like the many old ladies, writers, aristocrats and priests that abound in detective fiction! I thought this was to be a single book, but it was so popular that the fifteenth will be published this coming August.
AmeriCymru: From the Wikipedia we learn that:- "Apart from John, most of the main characters actually existed in history and every care is taken with research and the creation of atmosphere, to offer an authentic picture of twelfth-century England. Most the places described in the stories can be visited by readers today, even the gatehouse of Rougemont Castle in Exeter, where John had his office." How difficult is it to weave a fictional narrative around the lives of real characters? What proportion of your time is spent on research?
Bernard: Amongst historical novelists, there is a divergence of opinion about whether you should use real characters in the books. Some say it is perverting history and also risks possibly blackening the name of nice folk. I don''t think this is valid, especially after 900 years, as everyone knows the books are meant as entertainment, not teaching - though many ''fans'' have told me that they enjoyed such a painless way of learning some history, especially about common folk. I always try to tell life as it really was - the squalor, the dirt and the poverty, as well as how people ate and dressed all those centuries ago.
My information comes from all sorts of sources – history textbooks, monographs, direct questioning of very helpful experts – and of course the Internet, though one has to be careful in accepting everything in Wikipedia, as you never know if some historical essay was actually written by some spotty kid in Idaho!
I am almost obsessional about authenticity and cannot use anything I know or suspect to be wrong. Some of my writer friends are not so fussy, saying that it''s only entertainment, but I go to considerable lengths to try to get it right, even though I still slip up some times.
For instance in one of the earlier books, The Grim Reaper, I had the bright idea of having my serial killer, a priest, leave a relevant Biblical quotation at the scene of each murder, such as ''The Gospel of Mark, Chapter Ten, Verse Six.'' However, before I had finished the book, doubts began to gnaw at me and after consulting some theological colleagues, discovered that I could not do this, as the Bible in 1194 was continuous! Chapters were invented by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century and verses came in far later as a printing convenience.
Everywhere I write about, I have visited. It''s important, I think, to ''walk the territory'' which gives you a far more realistic impression of the scene than looking at photos or reading descriptions. I have even been up on Dartmoor in the snow to visit the place where the Devon tin miners used to hold their parliament.
I also find it very satisfying to tread the same stones as my characters did, all those centuries ago, like the gatehouse of Exeter Castle, built by William the Conqueror as early as 1068.
AmeriCymru: Crowner John could be called an "ancestor" of the modern pathologist, in writing about the beginnings of your own field in the 12th century, was it challenging to translate your much more vast knowledge of pathology to John''s limited resources, the information or education he would have had and the circumstances he would have had to work under?
Bernard: I went out of my way to avoid using my forensic pathology expertise in the Crowner John books, though of course, my more recent Dr Richard Pryor series based in South Wales in the 1950''s depends entirely upon it. But writing all those Crowner John stories was really a form of escapism for me, and it would have been a ''busman''s holiday'' if they contained any significant pathology – as well as being a total anachronism!
I confine the post-mortem examinations of John and Gwyn to crudely testing rigor mortis to guess how long someone had been dead – they probably did as well in 1194 as we do now, as it''s a pretty useless test! As for wounds, both John and Gwyn consider themselves experts after a lifetime on the battlefield, but they go little farther than sticking a finger into a stab wound to see how deep it was!
AmeriCymru: You have also written seven novels under the pseudonym "Bernard Picton". Can you tell us a bit more about those?
Bernard: In former years in Britain, it was unethical for doctors to professionally advertise themselves in any way - even the first TV doctor used to sit with his back to the camera! When I started writing in 1960, I could not flaunt my forensic knowledge in my novels and scripts, so had to take a pseudonym. At the time I was living in an old pub near Cowbridge, which had been ''The General Picton'', so I took that as a pen-name. Later, Margaret Thatcher forced the professions to open up and there was then no reason not to use my real name.
After my first novel in 1962, I went on to write another six ''stand-alone'' detective stories, all with a forensic flavour, one of them a ''link book'' to go with a major BBC forensic series called The Expert. I wrote the plots and acted as technical adviser for it, which I have done for several such programs – not that the producers took much notice of what I advised, if it didn''t suit their preconceptions!
These early books used forensic ''hooks'' on which to hang the plot and were sited in a variety of locations, from Cardiff to Newcastle, from Cardigan to Leningrad – the last one based on a trip I made to the Moscow State Forensic Institute in 1965.
AmeriCymru: Lion Rampant tells the story of a Welsh princess, Nest aka ''Helen of Wales'', and Lord Owain ap Cadwgan, Prince of Powys. Care to tell our readers a little about the book and how Nest came by that pseudonym?
Bernard: After the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, England was rapidly conquered, but it took another 200 years for Wales to be completely subjugated, when Prince Llewelyn was killed in 1282 by Edward Ist – from whom, unfortunately, I am descended.
But in the flat lands of the south and west, the Normans swept in early and in 1093, Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth was slain by the conqueror of Brecon. His beautiful young daughter Princess Nest was taken prisoner and made a ward of King Henry 1st, who made her one of his many mistresses and by whom she had a child. Then he married her off to Gerald de Windsor, castellan of Pembroke Castle, by whom she had five children, starting a Fitzgerald dynasty that included a Bishop of St David''s and Maurice, a conqueror of Ireland, from whom John Fitzgerald Kennedy could trace his ancestry. Maurice took his father''s flag to Ireland, where it was called St Patrick''s Cross and is now part of the Union Jack.
One of Nest''s grandsons was the famous cleric and writer, Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald the Welshman) from whose pen we have such a great knowledge of Wales in medieval times – and her nephew was ''The Lord Rhys'', who held the first national eisteddfod in Cardigan Castle in 1176..
At Christmas 1109, Nest was abducted from Cilgerran Castle, high on a crag above the Teifi, which belonged to her husband. The hot-blooded rescuer was her second-cousin, Owain ap Cadwgan, Prince of Powys, who having heard of her beauty, broke into the castle with a small band of men and galloped away with Nest and her children, after setting fire to the keep. Gerald escaped ignominiously through the latrine shaft – and again Nest gave birth to a child, this time Owain''s.!
This started a full-scale war and for this, Nest was later known as the ''Helen of Wales'' after the classical lady of Troy whose beauty was supposed to launched a thousand ships. Years later, Gerald killed Owain in revenge and Nest went on to have more chilldren by another two Norman knights – quite a fertile lady!
I mentioned my other Welsh historical novel earlier, Madoc, Prince of America.This well-known legend of the prince of Gwynedd who was alleged to have reached Mobile, Alabama in 1170 and gave rise to the ''Welsh Indians'' always intrigued me. I wrote yet another novel about it, using all the available ''evidence''. It has now become a bit of an embarrassment to me, as some years ago I became President of the Madoc Research Association – actually a small group of folk who met monthly in a pub in Maesteg to drink beer and gossip about Welsh history.
Though the legend has been around since Tudor times, being originally plugged by them politically in order to contest the prior claims of the Spanish to parts of North America, it was brought to modern public attention by a book published in 1966 by Sunday Times editor Richard Deacon. He produced a great deal of convincing new evidence to support the story, but recent research has shown that he was a pathological liar who fabricated most of his supporting evidence.
I no longer believe in the story, other than accepting that there was a tradition in medieval Wales of a mariner who ventured out far into the Western Ocean - a far cry from a Welsh prince ( of whom there is no trace in any historical records) reaching the Gulf of Mexico and then fighting his way up to the Ohio River and then the Missouri to found the Mandan tribe.
As a legend, it''s fine, but so much nonsense has been added to the story that it now lies beyond any credibility. For a balanced view of the legend, read Professor Gwyn Alf William''s 1979 paperback called Madoc.
AmeriCymru: The third book in your Dr. Richard Pryor series, Grounds for Appeal came out last December.. The Dr. Richard Pryor novels are set in the Wye Valley in Wales and take place during the 1950s, how much of your own life and experiences went in to these stories?
Bernard: These books have had a long incubation period, as in the early ''nineties, I wrote a proposition for a television series about a Welsh forensic pathologist who went into private consultant practice. This was taken up by a Cardiff TV production company and we developed story-lines and sample scripts. However, when we hawked it up to London to the large network companies, they were not interested, a common phenomenon with anything Welsh taken to London!
As it was not financially viable without network contracts, it was abandoned, but a few years ago, wanting a change from the twelfth century, I altered the names and locations and turned it into a book, ''Where Death Delights''. (This is a translation of part of an ancient Latin aphorism that is displayed in the entry hall of the New York Medical Examiners Office)
I wanted to get away from the current beaurocracy of the British ''nanny state'', with all its stuffy restrictions about Health and Safety, Human Rights, Race Relations, Data Protection and write about the days when I started pathology in 1955, when detectives in long raincoats and trilby hats could stand gossiping in the autopsy room with a cigarette and a mug of tea!
It was sheer nostalgia, writing about those post-war days when life was still austere, but freer from endless controls and restrictions.
I invented Dr Richard Pryor, a former Army pathologist who after service in the Far East, had stayed on in Singapore until he got a golden handshake and came home to Wales. His old aunt had left him her house in the Wye Valley where together with a disillusioned government forensic scientist, he sets up a laboratory and takes on a variety of cases from South Wales and the West of England. In addition, I run a mild romance through it, as Dr Pryor not only has this glamorous scientist at his elbow, but also a demure secretary, a pretty laboratory technician and a visiting anthropologist who looks like Sophia Loren!
Like the first Crowner John, I meant it to be a ''one-off'', but it proved very popular and I was asked for another two, which have recently been published, called According to the Evidence and Grounds for Appeal. The cases are naturally fictional, but have strands of reality running through them taken from my forty-five years in the job and there is an element of both nostalgia and autobiography in them. I have to think hard to make the techniques consistent with half a century ago, but at least they are a bit more complex than Crowner John''s primitive methods.
AmeriCymru: A lifetime of experience in medicine generally and forensic pathology in particular would seem to give you a "head start" as a mystery writer, has that freed you in any way to concentrate more on plot and character than might a writer less knowledgeable? Has your real-life experience been plot-inspiring for you or have you found real life forensics experience useful in crafting fiction and have you based incidents in your fiction on real-life cases?
Bernard: As mentioned earlier, the Crowner John books were in no way related to my professional life, quite the reverse. But of course, the many other crime books, plays and a few documentaries depended heavily on my forensic knowledge, though I never lift real cases into my fiction writing. However, parts of old cases, made unidentifiable, certainly get grafted into the stories, especially in the Dr Pryor books, but in a fragmented way, picking bits from different cases so that overall, they are unrecognisable. For instance, in one Dr Pryor book, my murder was concealed by letting a tractor wheel fall on to the victim''s neck – this was an echo of a suicide method I saw many years ago.
One problem about being a forensic pathologist is that it makes it hard for me to enjoy other crime novels where the forensic aspects are so badly portrayed – and in the case of the endless ''forensic'' television programs, impossible for me to watch, as they raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels! The greatest offender is ''time of death'' where the ludicrously-accurate claims of the author''s pathologist are exasperating. I edit the only textbook devoted solely to estimating the time of death – it has 270 pages, costs up to £100 and basically says that it can''t be done except within a very wide margin of error!
AmeriCymru: You''re also a founding member of a group known as The Medieval Murderers which has, among other things, produced seven novels, can you tell us what that is and how it came about?
Bernard: Other than the ''big name'' authors, most crime-writers are in the ''mid-list'', meaning that though they are not Dan Brown or John Grisham, neither are they complete dumbos whose books soon end up in the charity shops. However, this usually means that the publishers will spend little or no money promoting our books, so about ten years ago, a few of us historical mystery writers decided to form a self-promotion group called The Medieval Murderers, to go around libraries, bookshops, clubs and literary events giving informal talks about our work, either in a full group or as ones and twos. The members were Michael Jecks, Susannah Gregory, Philip Gooden, Ian Morson and myself, later joined by C J Sansom and Karen Maitland. We even had T-shirts made with a bloody dagger on the front!
Then a year or so later, we decided to write a book between us, which was not just a collection of short stories, but a ''chain book'', where each member wrote a ''novella'' of about 20,000 words which carried forward a theme set out in a Prologue and then tied up in an Epilogue. Once again, this was intended to be a ''one-off'' but The Tainted Relic was so successful that we have done one a year since then, with the eighth out soon and two more in the pipeline.
The writing method was unusual, being organised entirely by Email, as we all live far apart – Ian Morson was in Cyprus for most of the time. In fact, he has made a collection of all the messages, which he claims is longer than one of the actual books!
We began by deciding on a theme – the first was about a chip of the True Cross cursed when it was stolen in Jerusalem during the First Crusade, which killed anyone taking it from its container. Then we each wrote a story about it, using the period and characters from our own series, the idea being to publicise these other books. As the oldest (historically and personally!) I wrote the first chapter, using Crowner John to deal with the relic arriving in Devon. Then I had to leave it somewhere at the end of my story where Ian Morson, next in line in the 13th century, could pick it up – and so on up the line, until the end where I brought the saga into modern times in an Epilogue.
None of us knew what the others were writing, all that mattered was that the object was handed on smoothly between us. Later books used a sword, an abbey, a book of Celtic prophesies and the alleged bones of King Arthur as themes for the stories.
AmeriCymru: Do you have a particularly favorite character of your own that you especially like or enjoyed writing? A particular book that you enjoyed writing or are most proud of having produced?
Bernard: I suppose Crowner John himself is my favourite, he was physically modelled on a well-known local barrister that I worked with, tall, dark and saturnine. I made him somewhat unimaginative and not endowed with a great sense of humour, but honest and faithful to his friends and his king. Every sleuth needs his Dr Watson, so I gave him Gwyn, a big, amiable Cornishman, together with a diametrically-opposite character in Thomas de Peyne, a little runt of a priest with a slight hunchback and a limp. Unfrocked for an alleged indecent assault, he is pitifully thin and poorly dressed and I have had literally scores of letters, Emails and personal comments from ladies who seem keen to mother him!
As I''ve said before, Lion Rampant is still my favourite book, perhaps because it was my ''first-born'' historical novel, but from sheer nostalgic pleasure, I think my Malayan novel Dead in the Dog, which comes out this March, is high on the list of my favourites.
I also like the post-apocalyptic book I wrote in 2003, called Brennan . I wanted a complete change from the Middle Ages and decided to write a parody of the historic Arthur story, by describing the leadership of a senior Army officer from a South Wales barracks, who is left to collect and protect the few survivors of a viral plague that kills almost all the world''s population.
It had good reviews, being compared with Stephen King''s The Stand.
AmeriCymru: Do you read fiction for pleasure and, if so, what writers are you reading?
Bernard: I am an obsessive reader, can''t sit down without a book, even in the toilet. I''ll read anything, even the phone book if I''m desperate. For many years I was a reviewer for the crime website Tangled Web, so regularly got boxes of books through the mail with no control over the titles. Then I was one of the Crime Writers Association judges for the Silver Dagger Awards for non-fiction crime - and the local public library sees me about twice a month for a re-load, so I''ve had a heavy literary diet for most of my life.
Hard to say who my favourite authors are, it depends on how I feel – Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, Michael Pearce, Leslie Thomas, Alan Firth, John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Somerset Maugham – the list is almost endless. I love spy books and some SF, as long as it''s not the current fad for gold-brassiered princesses from Planet Zog!
AmeriCymru: What''s next for Bernard Knight?
Bernard: I''m pushing eighty-one now and swore that the fourteenth Crowner John would be my last, but clamour from fans made me squeeze out another final one. I have another two Medieval Murderers projects ahead, but they are relatively short. I don''t fancy sitting down to hammer out books of well over a hundred -thousand words any more, but I''d like to do some short stories. Not much of a market for them these days, but maybe Kindle might be the way forward. A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story by invitation for a ''Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes'', called The Birdman of Tonypandy, about a pub landlord in the Rhondda who murders his wife. The editor put it last in the book, as he said that nothing could follow it!
I''ve also a yen to write something about the adventures of a Cardiff tramp steamer in the 1930''s, as I was born in Cardiff''s Grangetown and both my father and grandfather ''worked down the Docks''. I used to get rides during the war on ships between the lock gates and the berths which gave me a life-long affection for merchant ships.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Bernard: I know the US pretty well, having been there many times for medico-legal congresses, giving evidence in courts and visiting my many forensic friends, such as Dr Tom Noguchi, the colourful former coroner of LA . It''s a fantastic country, but I couldn''t live anywhere else but Wales, which is as much a part of me as my feet. To stand in the evening on a Pembrokeshire cliff or walk the lonely moors near the Teifi Pools is both peaceful and exhilarating. Everywhere you look, there is history, my history, your history. So all I can recommend is for readers to come back to Wales, for as long a time that you can manage.
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