THE DEVIL’S HUNT by Paul Doherty

3 05 2017

A Medieval Mystery featuring Hugh Corbett

England, 1303

Ascham opened his eyes. the library was dark. He tried again to scream but the sound died on his lips. The candle, flickering under its metal cap on the table, shed a small pool of light and Ascham glimpsed the piece of parchment the assassin had tossed onto the table. Ascham realised what had brought about his death: he’d recognised the truth but he’d been stupid ebough to allow his searches to be known. If only he had a pen! His hand grasped the wound bubbling in his chest. He wept and crawled painfully across the floor towards the table. He seized the parchment and, with his dying strength, carefully hauled himself up to etch out the letters – but the pool of light seemed to be dimming. He’d lost the feeling in his legs, which were stiffening, like bars of iron.
‘Enough,’ he whispered. ‘Ah, Jesus …’
Ascham closed his eyes, coughed and died as the blood bubbled on his lips.

When the book opens, Hugh Corbett is at home in Leighton, in Essex, enjoying his peaceful life as Lord of the Manor, even if that does involve the odd hanging (as on the first page of Chapter 1) which he certainly does not enjoy, though everyone else seems to. But this country idyll is rudely shattered when the King, Edward I, arrives at the manor house demanding that Hugh return to his service immediately.

A demand from a king, though phrased as a request, is in reality an order, and in the case of this king, to cross him when he is in this mood would be to invite disaster. So Sir Hugh, along with his henchman Ranulf-atte-Newgate and their friend-servant-squire Maltote, are despatched to Oxford, where Sparrow Hall is in a state of turmoil. Two murders have already been committed there. Left near the second corpse was a parchment announcing “The Bellman fears neither King nor clerk […] The Bellman will ring the truth and all shall hear it.”

Meanwhile, outside the college, in the city, this Bellman has been posting proclamations attacking the King and claiming that Simon de Montfort was in the right of it when he took up arms against the King. And these proclamations purport to be emanating from Sparrow Hall, which the masters there all fervently deny. Well, they would.

Also outside the Hall, another seemingly separate series of murders has been taking place. In each case, an old beggar from the city, by definition helpless and defenceless, has been taken out into the forest and decapitated and his head has been hung from the branches of a tree. Sir Hugh finds reason to believe they were not actually killed in the forest but taken there – from Sparrow Hall, which would link them in some strange way with the Bellman and the murder of the two masters.

Another perfect medieval whodunnit from Paul Doherty. Not a word is wasted, and the excitement never flags for a moment. Nor can one possibly guess (without cheating!) who the Bellman really is.





A GIFT OF SANCTUARY by Candace Robb

3 04 2017

The reason I have chosen this, the sixth book in the series, to review, is that Geoffrey Chaucer plays a role in it, and that, to my mind, always lends authenticity to any novel set in the second half of the fourteenth century, be it by Anya Seton, Paul Docherty, Jim Hawkey or, as here, Candace Robb. However, the whole series is definitely prosaic as opposed not only to poetic but to magical mystery writing; this author has no truck with fantasy.

The hero of the series, Captain Owen Archer, a retired soldier, lives in York with his English wife (he is Welsh by birth) and father-in-law, and his little daughter. His wife is an apothecary, but Owen himself  now acts as a spy/agent for Archbishop Thoresby of York and the Duke of Lancaster, and it is this function that gives rise to the stories in these books. In this one, he is sent to south Wales to investigate reports that Welsh nationalists may give support to a French invasion – or the French army may support a pretender to kingship in an independent Wales – as the next stage in the on-going Hundred Years War. Accompanying him is his father-in-law, taking this opportunity to go on pilgrimage to St David’s, and Geoffrey Chaucer, another agent of the Duke of Lancaster – and of the English King.

The description of St David’s and the set-up there, and of the pilgrims (naturally Chaucer is studying them so that he “might describe them in all their variety”) is excellent, as is Owen’s inner turmoil when he finds himself back in his native Wales and speaking Welsh again for the first time since childhood, but now as an agent for the English Crown.

As soon as he arrives, a dead body is found. Another body, not quite dead, is discovered and given sanctuary by a passing Welsh bard. The Bishop of St David’s wants Owen to investigate. At first he is reluctant – but then realises that perhaps there is a connection between the murder and his mission …

It is well written, and if you liked the Cadfael Chronicles you will probably like these books (though I personally do not find Captain Archer anywhere near as sympathetic a character as Brother Cadfael).





THE MIDNIGHT SEA by Kat Ross

14 03 2017

FREE TODAY ON AMAZON

Nazafareen’s sister Ashraf was killed by the Druj (Undead things with iron swords and shadows whose touch meant death) when Nazafareen was twelve and Ashraf was seven. Now, all she lives for is revenge.

When the authorities-that-be discover she has the power to link with a daeva she willingly agrees to do so if this means that together she and the daeva will be a match for the Druj and able to hunt and destroy them. At first, she distrusts the daeva, whose name is Darius, thinking of him only as another kind of Druj but tamed and under her control – litle more than a sentient weapon. But living together, linked like that, she and Darius find themselves growing too close for her comfort in other ways.

This is an alternative version of ancient Persia and features a form of the dualistic Zoroastrian religion, in which two Gods fight an endless war, and people have to choose which side they are on, the Good or the Evil. (I have always found this form of dualism much more philosophically tenable than strict monotheism.) It also features both the prophet Zoroaster, the founder of this religion, and Alexander the Great, though here in this book they remain in the background; in Book 2, Blood of the Prophet, which I have already started reading, they both move into the foreground.

 

Extremely well written and highly recommended.





AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE by Susanna Gregory

11 03 2017

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew’s shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
‘Matt!’ he gasped. ‘Come out of there!’
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew’s shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
‘What is it?’ breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. ‘It looks like a goat,’ he said.
‘A goat?’ whispered Michael, in disbelief. ‘What is a goat doing here?’
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat’s head nevertheless, atop a human body.

Like the last Matthew Bartholomew story I reviewed here (The Tarnished Challice – six years ago!) An Unholy Alliance is long, and slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse’s teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew’s sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on “Lady Matilde”, a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] ‘How may I help you?’ she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. ‘I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?’
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
‘We have come to give you some information,’ said Bartholomew quickly

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim’s foot.

This circle is the sign of a mysterious “guild”of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people’s helplessness and gullibility?

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.





THE DARKLING PLAIN by Douglas R. Mason

7 03 2017

The north-west of England, 13th Century

There was a patter of bare feet on the beaten earth floor and Aelfgyth, late but willing, was among the company nervously smoothing down a stained yellow robe from where it had been hitched up in a plaited thong belt. There was already a sweet smell of decay about the shabby room, but from the fresh stink she carried with her, it was likely she had been busy with the pigs when the summons came. She said, ‘Here, Master. What do you lack?’ and stopped with her head hanging down under the stares of Alain’s men-at-arms.

The host put a hand flat on her chest and shoved her away. ‘When will I teach you not to push yourself forward? This gentleman was speaking to me. Away. Bring a new loaf and cook a pan of eggs. And broach the barrel I fetched up yesterday. Lively now, or you’ll feel the weight of my hand.’

She was off again at a run, hair flying in a dark brown pennant, and he was ready to wink and nod at Alain and draw him aside as far as space allowed.

[…]

The muttered conference with the host was finished and the man had a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he waddled across the floor to the seated figure. He never knew how close he came to having his head swiped off its stalk. But at the first words, Edward knew that the moment of truth was not yet.

The innkeeper said, ‘Here’s a stroke of luck for you now. Here’s a gentleman looking to employ you. He’ll give you a fair price and set you on your way …’

[…]

Edward relaxed, stood up slowly and nodded down at the innkeeper.

On his feet, he was seen to be a massive figure. His straw blond head was only an inch from the cross beams. The thick folds of his cloak could not conceal his breadth of shoulder and the bearing of a man trained in arms.

Set in what seems to be a straightforward late twelfth or early thirteenth century English provincial world in which there is still a clear distinction between Norman, Saxon and (encroaching) Welshman, this is a short book (less than 150 pages) and can easily be read in one night (I did). It is also a deceptively simple book: a younger son denied his birthright by his elder brother; a daughter deprived of her inheritance (following the death of her brother) by a wicked uncle; a beautiful Jewish girl whose father is killed when local people who are in debt to him set fire to his house; a wandering scribe and scholar who turns out to be a great nobleman and – more to the point – fearsome warrior.

Yet it is thoughtful, too. We see the world as it was, but also hear sensitive people questioning the mores of that world. And we realise once again that there are good – and awful! – people in every world and at every level of society. A great nobleman may have far more in common with the serving wench in a sleazy tavern than with his own brother.

An excellent story set in an unusual part of the country (Wallasey – opposite Liverpool – on the Wirral Peninsula), well worth reading, and suitable for teenagers, too.





PHOENIX BLOOD by Jenny Schwartz

27 02 2017

phoenix-bloodThis is a story set in a world of magic. Not quite the various worlds of vampires and/or werewolves we have all grown accustomed to – or the world of Hogwarts, although it does feature an English boarding school (the Old School of the series title) where magical talents are fostered.

Sadie Howard’s talent is Finding. She can find anything, whether it be a physical object like the pendant she is carrying when the story opens, or something more intangible like the safety she is seeking as she races into a bikers’ bar on the opening page pursued by two “Stag Mercenaries” intent on killing her and seizing the pendant, and finds safety with a man sitting quietly in the corner with his pet bird of paradise.

(Do you think one can judge a person’s age by the length of her sentences?)

A man called Marcus Aurelius, who nine years earlier “couldn’t fight a feather duster” but now effortlessly disposes of the two killers; who nine years ago had dropped her publicly and brutally, and broken her heart; who nine years ago had not believed in magic but proves now to be a powerful magician in his own right.

(I did it again.)

That, then, is the situation. But who wants the pendant so badly that he is sending Stag Mercenaries after Sadie? Will Sadie and Marcus ever complete the long road journey across the States to California, where she must deliver the pendant? Can their love have survived the nine years of heartbreak and loneliness they both (yes, both) went through? And what, really, is the entity now passing as a bird of paradise and Marcus’s companion?

A great story that on two successive nights kept me riveted to my Kindle till the early hours of the morning.





THE PENDANT by Lawton Paul

27 02 2017

Germany, 1944; Chickasaw, Florida, present day

pendant-coverThe book opens with a chapter entitled Marlina. The chapters are not numbered, only named, and this functions as a prologue, set seventy years before the main action of the story.

Marlina is a nurse in a German military hospital which is now behind enemy lines. She saves a little boy’s life when the only remaining doctor declares him dead. But she has some help in the form of a miraculous metal cone (of extra-terrestrial origin, or so the author implies). She does not know this, but she does take the cone with her when, dressed up as a nun by a helpful priest, she abandons her post and sets out on foot with the boy, heading into the unknown.

Forward 70 years. Angela Fleetwood is a cancer survivor whose husband, Walt, originally brought her to Chickasaw to die. Instead, she recovered, and he died. She believes he was murdered, and this is confirmed in her mind when a neighbour of theirs drowns in her bath and the Sheriff declares that, too, an accident, though Angela is quite sure it was no such thing. Especially as the neighbour, known to be an old woman, proved to have the body of a fit young woman. Her hair, too, was the hair of a young woman; it had been died grey.

Angela must be one of the most original amateur sleuths ever to hit the bookshelves (or rather Kindle). I loved her. And I loved her bizarre collection of neighbours and supporters.

I shan’t forget this story or these characters, and that for me is one of the basic criteria for Five Stars