London, December, 1380
It was worth the wait.
There is a prologue during the course of which two murders are committed. In fact, the story opens with the stunning line “Sir Robert Kilverby was about to be murdered.” A real hooker. How can you not read on after that? And when poor Sir Robert has been safely done away with (at his Cheapside mansion, alone in a locked room) we are whisked off to the Abbey of St Fulcher-on-Thames, where a former master bowman in the French wars, unable to sleep, wanders out into the night and, kneeling beside the grave of an old comrade in the Abbey cemetary, is decapitated at a stroke by a mysterious swordsman.
In Chapter 1, the story proper begins with Brother Athelstan busy in the kitchen of the priest house of St Erconwald’s in Southwark, his huge one-eyed tomcat languidly watching his every move, and – with a wave of his magic wand (his pen!) Paul Doherty has us back where we have longed to be. It is, in my opinion, the most homely, the most welcoming, setting in the whole medieval fiction genre, and all his weird and wonderful parishioners are old friends.
But as always disaster in one form or another strikes – in this case the two murders – and Sir John Cranston, Lord High Coroner of London, arrives while Athelstan is conducting the Mass. For those who do not know this series, Athelstan is a like a superficially simple and deep-down saintly Sherlock Holmes, but instead of a Watson he has the one of the judicial top brass as his sleuthing-partner. Sir John calls on Brother Athelstan when faced with a mystery he has no hope of solving on his own. And especially if the mystery has to be solved, and fast, because he has the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, the boy-king Richard’s uncle and effectual ruler of England, breathing down his neck.
For Sir Robert Kilverby had with him in his room when he died the immensely precious bloodstone known as the “Passio Christi”. When his family broke down the door next morning, it had disappeared. And the soldier who was murdered almost simultaneously at the abbey was one of the Wyvern Company, the troop that had “found” the gem, or rather stolen it, from a Benedictine monastery in France.
All very intriguing and a perfect read for a couple of winter evenings (or one long winter night).
I have to say that I was hoping – am still hoping! – for a story which has as its backdrop the Peasants’ Revolt and the rioting and mayhem in Southwark in June 1381. Here, it still gets only a passing mention, with Athelstan worried because “The Upright Men, leaders of the Great Community of the Realm, were plotting bloody revolt to turn the world upside down.” But that is no reason not to enjoy this book. You will, I promise.
However, I do have a real complaint. Perhaps it is the publishers (this is published by Severn House, while the others were all published by Headline, so far as I know) but this book is full of errors which cannot be dismissed simply as typos. Such things as “At short while later” and “he can swim like an fish” I overlook, but “a man who slinks through London and the surrounding shires preaching rebellion and tradition” – presumably sedition – and “that could be achieved without little clamour” and “Athelstan startled as a flock of jays” and “Athelstan continued on” – these on consecutive pages – becomes a little wearing. A few pages later: “Chalk did not abuse you of that” and “virtually most of his community” and “May the Lord turn his face to thee and give you peace” and “As regards to Kilverby’s death“. I could go on. And on. Paul Doherty himself is, of course, incapable of writing such rubbish, or (he is a teacher!) of leaving it uncorrected. No, what presumably happened is that some semi-literate editor (yet another one) had his hands on it after the author had approved it. A shame.