Murder at Sandal Castle!
Medieval murder and mayhem are the order of the day at Sandal Castle as Wakefield author and GP Keith Souter conjures up life there over 600 years ago in his book The Pardoner's Crime. We've been to meet this true man of mystery to find out more...
Mystery man: Keith and the Castle
"I actually like the idea of telling stories," says Keith, "One can't actually escape from it. I'm always saying that once I've finished the next book, I'll have a bit of a break and perhaps play a bit of golf or some sort of self-indulgence. But I never actually get that far because there's always another plot, another book knocking on the door!" And with his new novel hitting the bookshelves now, Keith is already looking to the future and, yes, his NEXT book. But it's the past as experienced by people living just over Keith's garden fence at Sandal Castle in Wakefield nearly 700 years ago that's been on his mind recently as he's worked on medieval murder mystery The Pardoner's Crime.
Magnificent spectacle: Sandal Castle
Set in and around Sandal Castle in 1322 at the time of Edward II, Keith Souter's novel follows Sir Richard Lee, the King's Sergeant-at-Law, as he investigates a vicious rape and murder. But that's just the start as another strange case is also brought before him: that of 'The Pardoner' who throws himself upon the mercy of the court and confesses to a crime that everyone believed had been committed by the outlaw Robin Hood.
With the imposing and undoubtedly romantic ruins of Sandal Castle literally just yards away from his home, Keith says it's pretty understandable why he'd want to write about it: "I look out of my front window and I'm looking out over the field of the Battle of Wakefield. I suppose I've spent many, many hours walking around the Castle - running around when I've been trying to get fit! - and it's been part of my life and my children's lives. In many ways I've found it quite sad that the Castle hasn't had the recognition it should have had, so it's my way of giving something back to Wakefield and to try and raise its profile."
Sandal in sunny silhouette
From the vantage point of the 21st century, recreating medieval Sandal Castle and Wakefield is never going to be easy. Despite this, Keith says he's given it his best shot: "It's very difficult. You actually have to strip the landscape bare almost, because while there are recognisable parts of medieval Wakefield - the three roads leading into it, the wonderful Chantry Chapel on the bridge - a lot of it was good imagination and knowing the location of things...and then gradually building it up in my mind. It's the same thing with Sandal Castle. There's very little left of the Castle, it's quite a ruin, but there's quite a nice reconstruction by schoolchildren in our local library which gives you a good picture of the Castle as it was."
Keith admits that Sandal Castle itself is as much a 'character' in the book as any of the living, breathing people who populate The Pardoner's Crime. Leaving the warmth of his home, he takes us on a chilly and windy tour of Sandal Castle's ruins. His enthusiasm for the location of his latest novel is obvious: "It would've looked magnificent. It was quite an unusual castle, quite circular, and it has an internal barbican [a fortified gateway] which is quite unusual - they're often on the outside. As we look across, you can see the motte - the big mound - and on top of that was the keep which would have risen three storeys high. All in all, it was quite a magnificent spectacle!"
Of the other characters in the book one of the main ones is, of course, The Pardoner. Keith explains that a Pardoner is a role that few people will have heard of these days but he would have played an important role in the religious life of medieval Wakefield: "A Pardoner was a seller of pardons and indulgences and he was permitted to go around the country selling these. They weren't actually pardons which would free people of sin but they'd mitigate against a sinful life on the Day of Judgement. Back in those days so many people were 'sinners'. They were Godfearing people and I think that's a very important point."
And then, of course, there's the appearance in The Pardoner's Crime of that famous English folk hero Robin Hood. It may come as a surprise, but one school of thought suggests that the man who robbed from the rich to give to the poor might actually have been from round these parts and not Sherwood Forest as the legend suggests. For his part, Keith says there's certainly evidence that this could be the case and that while Robin's appearance in his novel might be 'a little bit of a hook' for the reader, he's not just been randomly introduced as a star turn: "The historical Robin Hood was probably based in the time of King Edward II and there's good evidence that he was a Wakefield man. 'Robert Hode' was mentioned in the Wakefield court rolls in the early 1300s...So there are a lot of reasons to have Robin Hood in as a character and though he's not a central character he is quite an important one."
Mysterious motte: Sandal Castle
The Pardoner's Crime isn't, of course, Keith Souter's first novel. Not content with conjuring up medieval Wakefield from his pen or keyboard, he's also well-known for his Westerns (written under the pseudonym of Clay More) and for his crime novels (as Keith Moray). He clearly doesn't lack the imagination nor the skill to move his writing from one historical period to the next without a backward glance! In fact, it seems as though Keith sees his Western novels as a bit of light relief: "I quite enjoy writing them. They're nice to write and though they're not necessarily easy to write they do give me a bit of a rest between the larger novels. The crime novels are twice as large. There's a respectable readership out there [for Westerns] and the genre isn't as you might imagine it. It's not 'shoot-'em-up' and decimating the indigenous population. They're quite PC these days!"
Already looking to the future, Keith's next novel is already on its way. Called Murder Solstice, it's a detective story set on the fictitious Scottish island of West Uist and it's a sort of return to his roots: "I'm Scottish and I wanted to write some Scottish crime. I'm also a great fan of Agatha Christie and I like the idea of the country house or a crime committed on an island where you've got all the characters there - they can't escape. So I created the island of West Uist and my detective hero is Inspector Torquil McKinnon who's a bagpipe-playing detective. Now, in a way, I'm a 'method' writer - I have to get into the part. So, I went and learned how to play the bagpipes in order to do it!"
Keith Souter @ Sandal Castle
Keith Souter is clearly quite a character and so far he's created quite a selection of characters, too, whether they're trapped on the Scottish island of West Uist or perched high atop the keep at Sandal Castle. Now, while it's time for the good doctor to return to his day job, rest assured he's already making notes for his next-but-one novel!
Keith Souter's The Pardoner's Crime is out now published by Robert Hale.
last updated: 23/04/2008 at 15:40