On Murder Most Foul
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
When P.G. Wodehouse's delightedly loony hero, Betram Wooster wished to buy his butler, a gift, Jeeves requested a new and authoritatively annotated edition of the works of Spinoza. On a later occasion when Bertie found it necessary to disturb Jeeves, he apologised for interrupting him when he had probably just got to the part where the second corpse is found.
Bertie may have had the wrong idea about his manservant's taste in reading material, and a rather distorted understanding of what Cartesian Philosophy, Epistemology or Ontological Argument might be, but he gives expression to the great popularity of a compelling branch of literary form - the murder mystery. And I quite sympathise with him. Is there any greater delight than to curl up in a cosy armchair and get one's teeth into a decent murder?
Consider for example the gruesome case of Amaury, Lord of Tyre and Governor of Cyprus. Amaury was the younger son of Hugh III, the Lusignan king of Cyprus. He was appointed Lord of Tyre around 1289 and two years later he commanded the crusader troops defending the Accursed Tower of Acre when that city fell to the Mamluks. He then fled to Cyprus together with his brother, Henry II, the king of Jerusalem and Cyprus. In 1306, aided by the Templars and some of the barons, Amaury ousted Henry, banishing him to the royal estate at Strovolos (Strovilo) near Nicosia and assumed for himself the titles of Governor and Rector of Cyprus. His initial popularity petered out when the Templars were put on trial in 1307 and when he arrested some of the nobles, supporters of Henry who had consistently refused to acknowledge Amaury's authority. Meanwhile Henry managed to return to his palace in Nicosia. From this point on it was a downhill slope for Amaury. He tried to pressure the king to recognise him as Governor of Cyprus, sequestering him in the palace in Nicosia and isolating him from his aids and supporters. But when Henry stubbornly refused, the Governor and his men, in a scene of histrionics worthy of an opera, forced their way into his chambers, pinned the queen to the wall when she tried to push them out, and ignoring her curses in French, Arabic and Greek, and Henry's blows with a stick, forced the king to depart into exile in Armenia. Before he left, Henry warned Amaury: "You will last but a short while in the kingdom of Cyprus, for you have laid your foundations in bad ground, and your building will quickly fall into ruins"*, a prophesy that was indeed fulfilled. The king's exile took place on 4 February 1310 and three months later Amaury was dead.
It seems unlikely that the two events were not connected, and yet, the instigator of the brutal murder was in fact Amaury's trusted supporter, Simon de Montolif, a man who had been the recipient of numerous favours from the Governor. When finding himself alone with Amaury in the palace in Nicosia, Simon stabbed him to death and cut off his head and right hand. He then tried to dispose of the body, wrapping it up and stuffing it under a staircase, covering it with a mattress. He then locked the doors, and when passing the guards who noticed blood on his face, Simon told them that Amaury's son had injured him, and that he had come to tell the Governor, but found him asleep. The guards, remarkably, swallowed this explanation and Simon made his escape, not only from the scene of the crime, but from the pages of history. It was only in the evening that the body of the Governor was discovered, and the realisation dawned on the guards that Simon was the perpetrator. It was thought that perhaps he had made his escape by ship. A clerk claimed to have seen him in the nunnery of Our Lady of Tyre, but a search of the premises and threats to the Abbess, were of no avail. As the search for Simon only began more than ten hours after the crime, his disappearance is not altogether surprising. Historian, George Hill has noted that it may have been convenient for others involved, that he not be caught.**
If it had taken place in an English country house in the early twentieth century, Agatha Christie's sleuth Hercule Poirot might have been able, through the application of his "little grey cells", to expose Simon and uncover his motivation. Indeed, in Christie's novels her detective always manages to gather the suspects together and uncover the perpetrator through his clever deduction, and it seems that in this case the authorities, the Constable and the Prince of Galilee had a similar plan in mind. They held off announcing the deed, and summoned the supporters of the king and all those possibly involved to come to the Governor's house, which they then had surrounded. Unfortunately, the Constable and the Prince were not made of the stuff of Christie's little Belgium detective. The case was not solved, and we are left to ponder over this horrendous murder, and the motivations of its instigator. That it was Simon who committed the crime cannot be doubted, but was this a perfidious changing of sides and part of a royalist conspiracy, or perhaps a personal quarrel? We simply do not know. The decapitation and the amputation of Amaury's hand do seem to support the former. Hill suggests that Simon had cut off Amaury's head to take away with him, presumably to serve as proof that he had carried out the murder, but fearing that the head would be noticed as he fled, he cut off Amaury's hand instead.*** If so that would rule out this having been a spontaneous act and support the perfectly reasonable theory that someone else had instigated it, someone close to the king, or the king himself. Considering that Henry's other brother John I, who had ruled before him, was assassinated by poison, and that a shadow of suspicion of that deed had fallen on him, this cannot be ruled out.
* The Chronicle of Amadi, trans. Nicholas Coureas and Peter Edbury, Nicosia, 2015, p. 299, no. 626.
** George Hill, A History of Cyprus, vol. II, The Frankish Period, 1192-1432, Cambridge, 2010, p. 247.
*** Ibid., p. 246, n. 6.