Picks and Pans Review: The Sheriff of Nottingham

updated 03/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1992 01:00AM

by Richard Kluger

Oh, the fun you could have casting the movie of this sneakily subversive historical novel. Robin Hood, it seems, was a seedy, wenching, hoodwinking huntsman—much too lazy to do an honest day's work but smart enough to shed his real name: Stuckey Woodfinch (picture a bemused Bill Murray).

His archenemy, the Sheriff of Nottingham, is a sort of medieval Marshall Dillon who rides into town to root out corruption and, at one point, even joins forces with Robin and his merry Boyz N the Hood to rid Sherwood Forest of its real evildoers: crooked game wardens who prey upon the poor. The Sheriff is so good at his job, so virtuous, so stiff...well, who else but Kevin Costner, our most recent screen Robin, could do this lonesome lawman justice?

Movie misconceptions, actually, are what Kluger is intent on clearing up. Having thoroughly done his homework on 13th-century England and discovered that there is simply no proof that Robin Hood ever existed, he rightly banishes the character to a minor role.

There really was a Sheriff of Nottingham, though: his name, Philip Mark, even appears in the Magna Carta, a landmark document drawn up by rebellious lords seeking to abrogate the absolute power of tyrants like Philip's employer, King John. If there's a real villain in this novel, it is John, a blundering plunderer who keeps raising taxes to finance foreign misadventures and crushing dissident uprisings.

Kluger (who has written five previous novels and Simple Justice, a non-fiction account of the Supreme Court's 1954 desegregation decision) populates his tale with a colorful cross section of nobles, knights, clergymen and serfs, as well as the obligatory scenes of lust and bloodshed. But the dialogue, the details and, especially, the history all seem right. So much so that we can't wait for the movie—and for Hollywood to get it all wrong again. (Viking, $23)

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