I'm trying to write a murder mystery in a fantasy setting without much technology - certainly no DNA or fingerprint evidence - but I've realized that I have no idea how they would go about solving the crime.

What techniques would investigators use? The technology level is pretty much standard medieval, and while I will be flexible to a degree on when techniques were first used, I don't want anything that came after or during the industrial revolution.

This is a fantasy world, so I'm open to magical methods (but I'd like some more scientific methods as well). Necromancy came to mind, but there's a number of in world restrictions on communicating to the dead:

  1. You need part of the dead's body, preferably blood. Hair or bone might work too.
  2. You can only connect with spirits from certain cultural groups because not everyone's spirit goes to the same place.
  3. There's a minimum number of days it takes before the spirit of a dead person can be contacted.
  4. Even once those days elapse, the spirit may not be there.
  5. You can look for the relatives of whoever's blood you have, and try to work backwards, but all the same restrictions apply.
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    $\begingroup$ Wait, 1750 is the latest for a medieval-era world here? $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Dec 2, 2014 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ I'd prefer earlier than that, but I wanted to give people some flexibility. What's really important to me is pre-industrial revolution. I'll edit the question to reflect that. $\endgroup$
    – CoolCurry
    Dec 2, 2014 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ Does it really need to be science based ? (you did mention necromancy) $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Dec 3, 2014 at 0:16
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    $\begingroup$ See the novels of Terry Pratchett about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. $\endgroup$ Dec 3, 2014 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ I highly recommend watching the PBS "How Sherlock Changed the World" documentary (it's on netflix, or was last time I checked). It talks a lot about historic investigation techniques, along with the way Holmes and his real life inspiration, Joseph Bell, impacted the way we do things. $\endgroup$
    – Daenyth
    Dec 3, 2014 at 16:42

9 Answers 9


In this setting, laying aside magic for the moment, there are still some basic investigative techniques that may be used. These fall generally into the categories of human intelligence and forensics. Since even today, most murders are solved in the first two days after the crime, if necromancy has a minimum elapsed time restriction before it can be used, this may well be outside the first 48h, and so would be used only on the more difficult cases.

Human Intelligence

Human Intelligence is basically the matter of having the investigators interview the suspects and witnesses, either formally in an interview room, or informally wherever they may happen to meet. The techniques of interviewing suspects and witnesses has changed little for hundreds of years, and does not depend upon technology. Assuming that the investigators eschew torture for whatever reason, either that they recognise that confessions or information so obtained is unreliable, or simply that torture is illegal, a good investigator can still spot and pursue inconsistencies in a subject's dialogue, and determine who has good alibies or not.


Forensics has also existed in some form for hundreds of years, though in a pre-industrial-revolution society, there would of course not be the many scientific tests that we have these days. Still, that leaves many options:

  1. Autopsy. A person who has been murdered will likely bear the traces of the means by which their death was procured. This may be tool marks from a penetrating or blunt instrument, or the residue of a toxin or whatever else. Where magic may exist and could be used to kill, it is likely that there are forensic magicians as well as forensic doctors, potentially being the same person.

  2. Crime scene analysis. The spilling of blood may leave distinctive patterns that show how it was spilled, in what order events occurred, and may even show the outline of the killer in a void in a blood-spray pattern. The murderer may leave traces of himself, in the form of hair, fibres, footprints, etcetera, and may take away traces of the crime scene. It may be more difficult to connect the two than is the case now, but not impossible, and the importance of such evidence would be lower, but not nil.


While necromancy is quite limited, there may also be magic for determining the truth of a suspect's or witness's statements. In fantasy, such spells typically give a true/false reading, or may be more sophisticated, able to give a partial-truth and/or evasive response indication. This would, of course, only show what the subject of the spell believed to be true, and there may be spells that alter a person's memory of events, so that they can tell a 'lie' and still appear to be truthful under such questioning.

A particularly clever killer might even have his own memory of the event altered, so that by the time an investigation reaches him, he may no longer know that he committed the crime, and may have an entirely different memory of the time in question. However, if a suspect is a magician, then the possibility of this must be considered by an investigator, and if the suspect is not a magician, then the magician who performed the memory alteration may be locatable and could also testify. If it was not illegal to alter a memory at the request of the person whose memory was being altered, then it is quite likely that such a practitioner could be persuaded to testify against a criminal in order to avoid prosecution as an accessory to the crime. However, this would require that the investigators find said practitioner.

Another common trope in magic is the law of contagion: once two items have been connected, they will remain connected, though the time for which this connection persists varies according to setting. The law of contagion can be used to magically locate the missing part of an object or collection, or the person whose hair/fingernail/etc. was left at the crime scene, or whatever else. This could be as simple as dowsing (this is a considerably broader and more complex field than this Wikipedia article suggests, whole books have been written on the subject), or could be some sort of visual scrying. Even limited to dowsing, a good dowser could follow the path a killer had taken after leaving a crime scene for some distance, probably up to the point where that person crossed moving water in some sort of craft or by swimming.


Too long for a comment, not adding enough for a proper answer but hey... Try reading some other historical crime fiction such as the "Cadfael" series by Ellis Peters for some insight into realistic and (relatively) well researched Medieval crime investigations. Terry Pratchett's "Diskworld" series has something similar in a fantasy setting in its "City watch" subseries. The proceedings of the Old Bailey ( http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ ) will also provide some context on how crimes were investigated and prosecuted just a few decades later (it starts in 1674).

edit: more Cadfael as it seems to be making me popular Cadfael ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadfael) is about a fictional investigator/herbalist/monk who had previously fought in the crusades and took holy orders at Shrewsbury Abbey in the mid 12th century. Being so far back in time Peters had to restrain herself to techniques that would have been available at the time. Cadfael's knowledge of herbalism and plants (with their native locales) was one of the key ideas along side his previous occupation as a soldier. Together these allowed him to use plant clues to work out where the victim and suspects had been, as well as where poisoning may have occurred, and his medical and combat knowledge to understand wounds and their age (etc.). Cadfael's position as a monk and healer make him popular in the community (who doesn't like a nurse or priest?[sic]) and so people talk to him willingly where they would not talk to the authorities, particularly at a time of civil war, such as was being fought at the time. The accuracy of the ideas in the books is covered in [ Kaler, Anne, K (ed) (1998) Cordially Yours, Brother Cadfael, Bowling Green State University Popular Press ISBN 0-87972-773-X ]. The books are well written and easy to read and, as commented the great [authors view] sir David Jacobi starred in the eponymous role on the UK's ITV between 1994 and '98, both are recommended.

When it comes to the more forensic ideas some other posters have suggested things such as autopsies which, to our modern minds, seem normal and uncontentious but you should bear in mind that for cultural and religious reasons such things were seen as taboo. Dissection was illegal throughout Europe for a very long time and bodies were buried very quickly after death (c.f. being found), removing body parts as part of an autopsy could be seen as witchcraft and end in you dancing the Tyburn Jig (early modern grim hanging humour FTEW - very few if any witches were burnt; most were hung). Even if playing around with bodies is not illegal in your world, will all of the superstitious serfs be happy for you to desecrate the body of their loved ones or will a lynch mob form and fill you with pitchfork holes? Remember that the early anatomists (such as Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci) had to resort to grave robbing to get their victims and had to hide how they got all of their detailed knowledge. Medicine until the 19th Century didn't really go in for knowing what was inside the body and generally thought that human insides were humorous ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humorism ).

tl;dr for last paragraph: in modern times the worst people will do if they don't like your investigation is refuse to answer your questions, in those times you were in serious risk of a horrible, crispy death.

edit: a few more ideas Remember that magic need not be used just to ask the dead questions; if you have a spell that can compel someone to tell the truth you can gain a lot of information that you wouldn't otherwise have, especially if that spell (or another... or torture) makes them talk as well. Magic may leave traces of itself that investigators can follow like footprints in the air or magic use could be scried from a person's body. On the other hand magic can make it harder to detect the real criminal if they use it to implant false memories in others (perhaps even memories of committing the crime), to erase witness memories or even to make the murder look like a tragic accident (force push off a cliff?).

There are lots of ways that a medieval detective could work using things that we now base in science as if it were magic, perhaps even as far as fingerprints or DNA with some thought. Remember that one of Clarke's laws is that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.", and it applies backwards as well as forwards!

  • $\begingroup$ @Qwerky have a look at the proceedings too; they're really interesting, and in places bizarre! $\endgroup$
    – MD-Tech
    Dec 3, 2014 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ There was also a Cadfael TV series with Derek Jacobi. Not sure where else it might be available, but Amazon has the first episode for free. $\endgroup$
    – wjousts
    Dec 3, 2014 at 21:19

Disclaimer: I'm not a police officer, detective, law enforcement official, crime scene investigator . . . You get the idea.

That said, here are some ideas:

  • Ask witnesses. Don't laugh; this would probably be a best shot for a police force (or it's equivalent). There aren't any security cameras, microphones, or any recordings of the crime. You have to ask someone who as there. Unless you have talking animals, your best bet would be to ask any human that was nearby. Just be sure that s/he is telling the truth! Bribery by the murderer is possible. If the witness in question is a peasant, s/he would be willing to take money for lying.

  • Torture This becomes a very real possibility, especially if (as is discussed in the next example) the people in charge aren't so nice. Choose your method of choice: The rack, the Iron Maiden, or just tickling the person until they tell the interrogators what they want to hear. Choose wisely. There are some benefits to medieval-era torture: A) Just the threat of it is going to scare the heck out of any potential witnesses; B) It's likely very much legal.

  • Make up a scapegoat. Don't laugh at this one, either. It's probably not what you're looking for, but it's a possibility. If someone gets murdered (Especially a nobleman), the locally bigwigs are going to want to catch the person who did it because that will make them look better to the general populace (come to think of it, this would be less important if there weren't elections, though a leader still wants the support of his/her people). What if you can't find the killer? Pick a scapegoat, any scapegoat, preferably a rival or enemy. Doctor the evidence, do what you have to in order to place the blame squarely on his/her shoulders, and execute him or her.

    This is going to lead to a conclusion that's most likely not what you want. It's unsatisfactory, especially if your protagonist is a police investigator, or a relative of the dead person. An interesting plot twist, though, would be to have your protagonist be accused (and tried, and found guilty) of the murder. You can therefore have a tragic ending on the gallows, or a daring Jack-Sparrow-esque escape (I believe that a folktale involving Robin Hood had a similar scenario). You then have a dashing outlaw, sure to gather the support of the surrounding people, especially if they think he's innocent and the ruler(s) is/are corrupt. Viva la revolución!

These aren't too scientific, and (while almost certainly used in the past) may not be the most effective methods, although I don't have any better ideas. . .

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    $\begingroup$ A perfect description (well, not 100% perfect, the order would be scapegoat-torture-witness) of actual medieval investigation. Finding the culprit has never been (and often still is not) the target of a criminal investigation, but finding someone to blame in order to appease the masses. $\endgroup$
    – Damon
    Dec 3, 2014 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. $\endgroup$ Dec 3, 2014 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ @CalebHines Well, now people will! Their chief weapon is surprise, fear and surprise, surprise and fear, their two chief weapons are fear, surprise, and a ruthless efficient - ah. Amongst their weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise - ah I'll come in again (and look up the proper quote). $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Dec 3, 2014 at 21:39

Historically on Earth, evidence-based criminology wasn't invented until after the industrial revolution. When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories, the scientific approach to solving crimes was more or less a new idea.

Medieval law enforcement of a mysterious murder is to raise the alarm and look for people running away, or with bloody weapons, have people run around looking for who obviously did it, then if that doesn't work, question people.

Fortunately (or tragically, for potential innocent accused), you don't need much evidence. You just need to convince the local ranking noble to listen and care and believe you enough. Or if the suspect is noble, depending on local laws, you might be able to challenge them to single combat. God knows who's right, and will see that the right person wins.

Or you can consult what local magicians or diviners or sages are available. Or if you suspect the assassin was from some group, you can threaten other members of that group to turn over the assassin, or exact some retribution you invent.

  • $\begingroup$ Edgar Allen Poe wrote a few stories featuring a Holmes-like detective C Auguste Dupin in the 1840s $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Dec 5, 2014 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ @oldcat Great observation! And yet even by Holmes' time at the end of the 19th Century, evidence-based crime investigation was still an unorthodox idea. Dupin and Holmes were presented as heroic geniuses of amazing tales. $\endgroup$
    – Dronz
    Dec 5, 2014 at 3:29

As Dronz, investigation was much less evidence-based before modern era. It was mainly witness-based, with "witness" in a different sense than we understand it now. If nobody saw the crime, then typical "witness" was a village elder saying that all the villagers but the suspect couldn't kill their neighbor, because the elder knows them as honorable people. Two or three witnesses were usually necessary, but their status played some role and one nobleman's doubtful testimony could weigh more than testimony of a whole village of peasant, even if they seemed right. The details depend on culture, on the judge's personality etc.

There were cases when evidence outweighed testimonies however. Finding the murder weapon with someone was almost clear. Separating witnesses for interrogation and asking questions that could prove false testimony was a common technique. Another one was scaring the culprit to make him panic and run away or do something else that "proves" he is guilty.

Nobody mentioned ordeals yet - for most of prehistory and middle ages, this seems to be the default solution of truly mysterious crimes, where techniques mentioned above didn't prove who did it. Some ordeals were just ways to make the culprit show his guilt - such as telling everyone in the village that some magical ash will make blisters to those guilty and then arresting those who didn't touch the ash. In other cases, some supernatural sign was required to prove innocence (walking barefoot on burning ploughshares) or guilt (a witch won't sink when thrown into water). Close to ordeals were trials by combat - the innocent was supposed to win.

With fantasy-like magic, there are basically three possibilities: either the mage is just a witness as anyone else (though perhaps with high value), no matter how sophisticated his magic is. Or the magic is somehow used to supplement ordeal - the judge uses a spell and tells who is guilty (ordeals are a kind of magical investigation as well, just without classical fantasy magic), and judge's whim or critical failures on divination are easy to hide. The third possibility is that the magic produces evidence comparable to modern forensic, and it is recognized as such. In this case use Monty Wild's answer and don't try it to ressemble medieval investigation more than is necessary.

Perhaps you can combine all three: in your situation, the investigation would have three stages: first few days, when human intelligence and mind magic plays primary role, then use necromancy and other divination not available in the first few days, and then an ordeal if the second stage doesn't lead to solution, or to "prove" that the mage didn't manipulate the process.


Step 1

Go where the last meal(s) of the victim were, and make sure you get a sample of everything.

That for testing if it is poisened, use arrested pagans/prisoners/slaves to test various food items around... if they die of one of them, test again... if the second one dies too, you know it is food poisening. (might promise them amnesty in heaven for their crimes if they are working along or just see it as a death conviction)

If you find poison, use alchemy to find out what it was.

step 2 :

In order to get to the body's, either BE the priest, the grave digger or some other person that gets easy acces to the body's. (your detetive work is off the record for well paying insiders, or out of curiousity -> after all many priests were themselve of nobility, so they might want to just have a hobby, or feel obligated to their family)

Once you got acces to the body's, do NOT dissect them (medieval medicine would not know what to look for, but look for outward signs, pale skin, foam mounth, color of the tongue, eyes, etc, could all be signs of poison. If the cause was foul play, this should also show clearly in the form of stabwounds, cuts or bruises. ->

if you see clear signs of foul play, than a little reconstructiv work in the torture chamber (punished prisoners are plentyfull) and start testing untill you find your murder weapon.

You can also observe the body for the limited signs known of decomposing.. (bloating, maggots and such, while this knowledge is VERY limited in these times, it gives a very rough estimate in were it hours, days or weeks this person has been dead.)

Now test that soliva and blood on poison by basic alchemy.for poison. (if you want to keep in the period, also extract some black and yellow vile, and test them as well)

You now have your suspected method of killing *poison *assault *witchcraft (anything that does not fall in the first 2 cathogories)

step 3 :

Now you could just starting asking questions, but your cover would be pretty soon blown and you dead, besised your assasin likely worked in order of somebody royal and he/she SURE is not going to talk.

So your method is : see who get to gain the most by the dead of your victim, that is your most likely assasin-ordering person. This is simple as for royality this is just prestige, power, titles and MONEY, very easy to track and to get informed about without needing to ask suspicious questions.

Now in order to get that person to talk, you do a little poison mixing of your own, nothing deadly, but by either grind a little dust of the diseased, or just the right herb in their drink or meal, you can make them properly sick.. (small change of them dieing of that.. so you won't do that if you like the suspect to much) but if you are a sociopath or don't care for the target more than the truth.. go ahead.. now since YOU were the priest and they think they gonna die... they will give deathbed confession to you, INCLUDING that plotted assasination... if they did it, rest asured hell to such people is fearfull thy will not keep that out, so if they are not admitting, they not done it.

in the case your first suspect turned out blank, you go onwards with this practice.. if you hit a dead end (no proper gain people more can be found.. exclude poison and/or assault, it is witchcraft!)

step 4 : blind accusing.

So it's witchcraft, great! now you just point at the most hated person in town (or somebody random you want to get ridd of for whatever reason) and she/he be tested the way witched are tested.. either burned at the stake (oops she burned to crisp, she was not a witch, alas).. or dipped in the water (oops she did not came afloat, she was not a witch) or have her weighted on a scale (ah great find the lightest person and she sure be guilty <50kg = witch) and THAN burned or drowned. That way the people will always be suspicious, and in those times that means guilty. Your job is done, does not matter if the real killer is still out there.

  • $\begingroup$ I'll feel guilty if I don't say anything, so I guess I'll just say welcome to Worldbuilding! Good first post. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Dec 4, 2014 at 2:53

One of the worst mistakes an author can make is their world and its characters not be based enough in reality, so I'd suggest staying away from anything magical solving a crime, even in a Fantasy setting. There were methods in Medieval times for solving a crime. Do your research that includes diving into it on your own and asking those expert in the era from which you wish to borrow (university professors of the Medieval era would be a great place to start - most are extremely helpful). You'll be better off learning what you need that way than getting advice on a public board.

An excellent example of Medieval mysteries and crime-solving techniques can be found in the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne:



There is an issue with your basic premise, which if you are happy with, then fair enough, but it is that the scientific principle did (could?) not exist in medieval times. Might was Right and wisdom was revealed not preceived.

You could have an individual who applies observation, common sense and logical reasoning to work out a possible sequence of events and then questions witnesses to confirm or disprove theories. Such an individual would probably have a hunter/game keeper background to have the observational and reasoning skills, which would make them lower social caste so making it difficult to do anything other the converse with witnesses, and even then only lower social order ones.

One aspect you could have some fun with is your societies attitude to murder. It would be very different to modern attitudes.


Not medieval per se, but if you want a great example of some pretty traditional criminal investigation alongside a well described/internally consistent system of magical forensics, you should have a look at Randall Garrett's "Lord Darcy" stories.

These are set in an alternate 19th Century-ish setting with magic based devices replacing many of the later industrial/Victorian technologies.

  • $\begingroup$ The Obsidian and Blood series/trilogy by Aliette de Bodard is similar, but the protagonist is a High Priest of the death god in the Aztec Empire who uses necromancy to solve crimes. $\endgroup$
    – LAK
    Dec 3, 2014 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ Yes - the "Sherlock Holmes" isn't a wizard, but uses clues given by standard magical forensic tests. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Dec 3, 2014 at 20:41

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