THE FIELD OF BLOOD by Paul Doherty

15 01 2011

Once again, I’m in 1380s London, with Lancaster (John o’ Gaunt) still in charge as Regent for his young nephew, Richard II, and the Peasants’ Revolt still just a dream or a nightmare, depending which way you looked at it.

Lancaster’s great Savoy Palace still stands on the north bank of the Thames, facing arrogantly across towards Brother Athelstan’s Southwark on the south bank.

It won’t for much longer. In 1381, the men of Kent and Essex burnt it to the ground.

One of the nicest things about reading historical novels is that you know what is going to happen – at least on the big screen. On the small screen, of course, you have no more idea than the characters themselves.

A King’s Messenger is found murdered along with two other people in an abandoned cottage on the outskirts of the parish of St Erconwald’s in Southwark (London, south of the Thames, for those unfamiliar with the city!). This is Brother Athelstan’s parish. And as the law stands then, if they do not produce the murderer they will be held responsible and will have to pay a fine of hundreds of pounds.

At the same time, north of the river, a prostitute accused of murdering a man in a bar asks to be pardoned if she provides the evidence to convict a multiple murderer. But the woman she accuses is a friend of Sir John Cranston’s, and he wants Athelstan to help him prove her innocent.

Were any of these murders committed by the would-be rebels, some of whom are Athelstan’s parishioners and friends? He has his hands full!

As always in these books there is a fantastic gallery of rogues and outsiders. Here you have, for instance, “the Four Gospels”: Matthew and his three women camping beside the Thames awaiting the Second Coming. You have the Vicar of Hell, an ex-priest who comes to visit Athelstan one dark evening. And you have the Fisher of Men: read this!

He was surrounded by his strange crew, outcasts and lepers, their faces and hands bound in dirty linen bandages. Only one was different, a young boy called Icthus. He had no hair, eyebrows or eyelids and, with his protuberant eyes, pouting lips and thin-ribbed body, he looked like a fish and, indeed, could swim like one.

Very few people approached these men who combed the waters of the Thames for corpses. Outside the chapel was a proclamation bearing the charges for bodies recovered. “Accidents 3d. Suicides 4d. Murders 6d. The mad and the insane 9d.”

The fisher of men rose as Athelstan approached.

Paul Doherty at his best is completely unbeatable.

And – I can’t help it, I know I am quoting too much but I mean, read this description of Brother Athelstan’s Parish Council:

Athelstan always marvelled how his parishioners sensed some impending crisis. The whole council had turned up eager to learn any tidbits of scandal and gossip […] Of course there had been the usual struggle for positions of authority. Athelstan groaned at the way Pike’s wife was glaring at Watkin’s bulbous-faced spouse, for her expression suggested civil war must be imminent.Watkin, as leader of the council, sat holding the box which contained the blood book and seals of the parish. These were the symbols of his authority; the way Watkin gripped them and looked warningly at the rest from under lowrered bushy brows reminded Athelstan of a bull about to charge. Pike sat next to him. Hig the pigman, his stubby face glowering, looked ready to pick a quarrel with the world and not give an inch. Pernell the Fleming woman had tried to change the dye in her hair from orange to yellow. Athelstan tried not to laugh. The result was truly frightening. Pernell’s hair now stuck up in the most lurid colours. Benedicta sat next to her, whispering to assuage the insult one of the rest must have levelled at the poor woman. Mugwort the bell clerk, Manger the hangman, Huddle the painter, eyes half-closed, and Ranulf the rat-catcher: from the huge pockets on his leather jacket Ranulf’s two favourite ferrets, Ferrox and Audax, poked out their heads. Cecily the courtesan wore a new bracelet and looked like a cat which had stolen the cream. Basil the blacksmith and Joscelyn from the Piebald tavern were also present. The dorr was flung open and Ursula the pig woman hurried in, her great sow trotting behind her. The ferrets sniffed the air and disappeared. The pig would have headed like an arrow straight into the sacristy but Ursula smacked its bottom and it sat down immediately …

Perfect.

In the next book in the series, The House of Shadows, we are back in 1380s Southwark with Bother Athelstan, and for the last time unless Paul Doherty can be cajoled into penning another and truly final “Sorrowful Mystery of Brother Athelstan”. I say truly final because what I have in mind is Athelstan and his friend Jack (Sir John Cranston, Lord Coroner of London) during the Peasants’ Revolt which took place a few months after this story, in the summer of 1381. Some of Athelstan’s parishioners will certainly be among those who sack the city – including Gaunt’s Savoy Palace – and will later find themselves among those heading for the scaffold when the revolt is crushed. Will Athelstan and the Lord Coroner find themselves on different sides when it comes to the crunch? Email Hodder Headline, email or write to Doherty himself ℅ Headline UK, and ask for this one last book in the series!

Meanwhile, back in the autumn of 1380 … but perhaps I should start where the author himself starts, with the murder in 1360 of a beautiful blonde prostitute known as Guinevere the Golden in the cemetery of St Erconwald’s. Her body had been removed and no one knew she had been murdered, only that she had disappeared. At the same time, a huge treasure chest intended to fund a crusade went missing, along with the men set to guard it.

Now, twenty years later, when a series of murders takes place in Southwark, it occurs to Athelstan that there may be a connection between these murders and those disappearances. The middle-aged knights known as the Knights of the Golden Falcon are all now staying at the Night in Jerusalem tavern just as they had been that other night twenty years earlier.

Some of their number at least have been entertaining themselves with Guinevere’s twin daughters, now famous blonde prostitutes themselves, just as they did with Guinevere herself during those other long-ago days prior to the crusade. And a bounty-hunter called the Judas Man has honed in on his quarry, the Misericord, a notorious but likeable villain in that same tavern; the Misericorde, as it happens, was also there that same night twenty years earlier – he had worked there as a pot-boy.

What really happened? What is happening now? One thing is certain: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, now Regent (i.e. acting King) was and is still involved.

A wonderful story.

I can’t understand why Paul Doherty stopped writing this series! Please, Paul! We want to see what happens to all these people (who have become our friends!) when the rebels invade and ransack Southwark in 1381! So, just one more!

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2 responses

20 01 2011
Kanti Burns

I just want to add that Paul Doherty replied to this post saying that he has been working on another Brother Athelstan story and that it will be published later this year. Great news! (He posted his reply on my ABOUT page. You can find it there.)
Kanti

26 06 2014
Kanti Burns, Book Reviews and more ...

[…] this series is different in that it doesn’t have a single protagonist, a medieval sleuth like Brother Athanasius, going from book to book, but a whole group of characters who take it in turn to tell the tales […]

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