THE WAXMAN MURDERS by Paul Doherty

4 05 2016

A mystery featuring medieval sleuth Hugh Corbett

Canterbury and East Anglia, 1272, 1300, 1303

Waxman MurdersIn 1272, King Henry III had died. His son Edward was on Crusade in Outremer (the Holy Land) at the time, and, in the absence of a king, law and order broke down. Rifflers pillaged isolated homes and farms. Among those attacked was the Blackstock’s manor house outside Canterbury.

The Blackstocks had two sons. The older boy, Hubert, was at school in Canterbury, but the younger son, Adam, watched his own mother being raped and murdered, then saw his father killed and his home burnt down.

By the year 1300, Adam had become a North Sea pirate with his own ship, the Waxman, and Hugh, who had pursued his studies and become a monk, had abandoned the cloister and disappeared from sight – though all men feared him as much as they did his brother.

A map purporting to show where a great treasure was buried in Suffolk had fallen into Adam’s hands. He was sailing to the Orwell estuary to deliver it to his brother when he was intercepted by two ships and killed in the ensuing battle. The map disappeared.

Now, three years later, a series of murders have been committed in Canterbury.

Sir Hugh Corbett, sent by king Edward (whose main interest is the map and the treasure) to investigate, finds that the beautiful lady Adelicia has been accused of one of the murders – the victim was her detested and miserly husband – but  he has reason to believe that they are all in fact connected, and may be the work of Hugh, Adam Blackstead’s mysterious elder brother.

Then Hugh himself receives a threatening note – from someone who seems to be able to kill with impunity, anywhere, any time.

As I have said before, and will no doubt say again, Paul Doherty is the maestro when it comes to Medieval Mysteries, and this is another one not to be missed.





THE TOLLS OF DEATH by Michael Jecks

4 05 2016

Cornwall, England, 1323

Tolls of DeathThis is one of the earliest – and best – of Michael Jecks’ Templar Knights series. One not to be missed if, like me, you are a lapper-up of Medieval Mysteries.

The Prologue to this story opens:

There were two happy men that day in Cardinham in the summer of 1323, and one who was fearful.

Serlo the miller had every right to be concerned. Although he feared ruin, he was about to be murdered, for reasons he could not begin to comprehend, and at the hands of one whom he would never have suspected.

I like that: He was about to be murdered. You find yourself waiting for it, you are drawn in at once and don’t have a long, long wait for anything to happen as in so many Michael Jecks books.

The two happy men that day in the summer of 1323 are of course Siman Puttock and Sir Baldwin Furnshill. They are happy because they have arrived back in England after their pilgrimage to Compostela in the north of Spain (read The Templar’s Penance) and now have only to make their way from Cornwall into Devon and be home, at last.

But while they are in Cardinham a woman named Athelina is found hanged and her two sons dead with her in their cottage. Suicide. An act of desperation. In despair, she killed her children then took her own life.

Baldwin, predictably, does not agree. And the who-cares attitude of the brainless young coroner only increases his determination to bring the killer of the poor woman and the two boys to book.

There are the usual array of memorable characters Jecks creates each time he writes a book just for that one book. For instance, here you have the miller, Serlo – the one who is to be murdered – and his protective elder bother, the bailiff, Alexander, who will be desperate to avenge him. You have Richard atte Brooke, who returns to the village after fifteen years’ absence, having left when his family all died in a fire. It seems that he hates Serlo, blames him, indirectly, for the death of his family. Will he be Serlo’s murderer? But how does he fit into the three deaths we already have? It turns out that he is in love with, has always been in love with, poor Athelina.

And then there is Anne, the exquisitely beautiful Lady Anne, a starving orphan who became a prostitute and finally won the heart of Nicholas, the castellan, commander of the local garrison. He knows nothing of what she did as a child in order to survive, only that he adores her and that she is now pregnant; but is the baby his?

All this, and much more, takes place against the historical background of Mortimer’s escape from the Tower. At this juncture no one knows whether he is still in England or has managed to get away to Ireland or France, but many sympathise with him and hate the grasping Despensers and despise the rather pathetic King Edward II whom the Despensers seem to lead by the nose. Will he flee to the south west and turn up in Cornwall? And what will they do if he does? One of the great things about this series is the way it arouses your interest in the history of the period. You close the novel and rush to the history book.

Read it, even if you have already read later ones in the series. The knowledge of what comes later won’t spoil it, and reading it will fill in gaps in the on-going background story.





THE ASSASSIN IN THE GREENWOOD & THE SONG OF A DARK ANGEL by Paul Doherty

3 04 2016

Two medieval mysteries featuring Hugh Corbett

England, 1302

In his cold, cramped cell in the monastery outside Worcester, Florence the chronicler lifted his milky, dim eyes and stared out at the darkness beyond his cell window. How should he describe these times? Should he recount all that he had heard? Was it true for instance that Satan himself, the prince of darkness, had reisen from the depths of hell with his horde of black-garbed legions to tempt and terrorise the human soul with visions from the pit? He had been told that an evil sea of demons, rumbling and boiling over the face of the earth, amused themselves disguised as snakes, fierce animals, monsters with crooked limbs, mangy beasts and crawling things. At midnight, so Florence had heard, the heavens rumbled with thunder and lightning flashed above a restless sea of heads, hands outstretched, eyes glassy with despair.

[…]

In the dark streets and alleyways of Paris, which ran together in a spider’s web on the far side of the Grand Pont, more practical men laid their schemes and drew up plans to discover Philip’s true intentions. Sir Hugh Corbett, Edward I of England’s most senior clerk in the chancery, master of the King’s secrets and Keeper of the Secret Seal, had flooded the French city with his agents: merchants osensibly looking for new markets; monks and friars supposedly visiting their mothr-houses;scholars hoping to dispute in the schools; pilgrims apparently on their way to worship the severed head of St Denis; even courtesans who hired chambers and entertained clients, the clerks and officials of Philip’s secret chancery.

Assassin in the GreenwoodTwo more of Paul Doherty’s Sir Hugh Corbett novels have recently come my way. Both are excellent – of course – this is Paul Doherty – but I especially enjoyed The Assassin in the Greenwood. I imagine this was because it features such familiar characters as Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlett, Maid Marian and, of course, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the evil Sir Guy of Gisborne. But – this being Paul Doherty – it is not as simple as Hugh Corbett meets Robin of Locksley and we all have fun in the greenwood. Far from it.

The book opens with the other plot. Philip the Fair of France is planning to invade Flanders, an important ally of England’s (the wool trade!) while Edward of England is engaged in his ongoing war with the ‘rebellious’ Scots. As England and France are officially at peace, Edward cannot interfere directly. What he can do, though, is learn exactly when and where the French army will cross the border, and inform the Flemings. Ranulf, Hugh’s right-hand man, is in Paris with a team of spies trying to find out just that.

Meanwhile, in Nottingham, Robin Hood, who had made his peace with the King and retired to his estate, suddenly takes to the woods again, where he, Little John and Maid Marian begin robbing and killing with a ruthlessness and ferocity they had never shown before, including seizing the King’s own taxes en route to London and killing all the soldiers who were guarding it. Then the Sheriff of Nottingham himself is poisoned during the night in his locked room.

Sir Hugh is sent to Nottingham and Ranulf joins him there with a document supposedly containing the information Edward is waiting for. But it is in code and they cannot break the code.

Then Hugh receives a message from London telling him that Philip has despatched an assassin to murder him. The assassin, who might be anybody, is already in Nottingham.

As always, the minor characters are a joy. Take Henry de Lacey, Earl of Lincoln, the King’s cousin. How would you picture him after reading about him in the history books? Ah, but after reading this book he will be there vividly in your mind for ever – and all from one brief appearance.

Song of a Dark AngelThe events recounted in The Song of a Dark Angel take place as winter sets in later in that same year, 1302. On a beach near Hunstanton in Norfolk, where the wind sweeps in off the North Sea all winter long (the Dark Angel of the title is the local name of this north-east wind), a headless corpse is discovered. The missing head has been impaled on a pole, and hanging on the gallows nearby is the body of the wife of the local baker.

But why has the King sent Sir Hugh and Ranulf to investigate what seem on the face of it two quite ordinary, if violent, deaths, one of which may have been a suicide?

Can it have anything to do with the fact that the King’s grandfather, Bad King John, lost all his treasure in the Wash when the treacherous tides swept in faster than anticipated? And that certain items from that lost treasure have recently surfaced in a London pawnbroker’s, and that the present King is strapped for cash?

Another great tale by the inimitable Paul Doherty, full of unexpected twists and turns and the usual unforgettable medieval characters.





THE BISHOP MUST DIE by Michael Jecks

24 03 2016

England, 1326

Bishop Must DieLady Isabella Fitzwilliam wept quietly as she prayed for her poor dead son Roger. She hoped that he was safe, but she could guess all too easily how harsh his life would have become.

Dust and ashes, that was her own life: everything she had loved and sought to defend was turned to dust and ashes. Her hopes and dreams, the children, the husbands – all would have been better had she never lived. To be born, to live with hope, to wed a good man only to see him die; to wed again, but to have him taken from her in turn, that was too cruel. How could God, the All-seeing, the All-powerful, punish her so cruelly?

The Father, her confessor, had told her that He would be eternally kind to her when she died; that her suffering in this world was to be an example to others, and that they would benefit marvellously from her bearing in this time of woe. She was a source of strength for all those who know her. A pious woman in adversity was a wonder to all, he said.

He was lucky to be alive.

I love that “He was lucky to be alive”!

The bishop in question is Bishop Stapledon of Exeter, Lord Treasurer of England. The downfall of King Edward II continues, and in the background are our two heroes, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill and his ex-friend, the ex-bailiff Simon Puttock. For yes, in the on-going soap-opera of the Knights Templar Mysteries, not only has Simon lost his job on the moors but also his best friend.

In this book, Stapledon takes pride of place, as he has been threatening to do since The Templar, the Queen and her Lover. For the good Bishop, in an attempt to placate the implacable, has been sucking up to (I am tempted to use a much more vulgar expression here!) the brutal and rapacious Sir Hugh le Despenser and the besotted monarch who allows him to run the country for his own personal profit. Not that Stapledon can pass on all the blame to Despenser. He is pretty rapacious himself in his endless quest for more and more money for the great cathedral he is building. And unlike Despenser, he has the gall to claim when he is responsible for widows and orphans being lkeft homeless that it is all done in God’s service.

Naturally, he has made and is still making an abundance of bitter enemies. In this book we follow the stories of not one but three men, each the victim of gross injustice at his hands and each plotting their separate revenge.

As always with these books, there are so many strands to the story that it is very difficult to get into, with Jecks hopping mercilessly from one subplot to the other, one minor character to the other. But I made an interesting discovery. I had finally given up on the book, having fallen asleep over it so many times, bored and confused. But then one evening, in an idle moment, I chanced to pick it up again and start reading from the beginning and – hey presto! – I read straight through it with the greatest of ease and the greatest of pleasure.

For the fact is that in order to be able to follow what is happening you need to know who all these people are and – yes, you need to know already what is happening!

Like all Michael Jecks’ novels, then, a long and fascinating tale set firmly in one of the most traumatic periods of English history. And if it doesn’t grip you first time round, I think it will the second time.





ABSOLUTION BY MURDER by Peter Tremayne

4 03 2016

A novel of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma

Whitby, England, AD 664

Absolution by M coverAll good novels describe and recount what actually happened in some alternative universe. It is not, by definition, this universe. If it was, it would not be a novel. In a Historical Note at the beginning of Suffer the Little Children (the third in this series), Peter Tremayne writes “Fidelma was born at Cashel, capital of the Kingdom of Muman (Munster) in southwest Ireland, in AD 636. She was the youngest daughter of Failbe Fland, the king, who died the year after her birth … etc.” Not in this universe. And (just one example of many, many): “The Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or since.” Not in this universe.

Tremayne has created a wonderful – and I do mean wonderful – alternative universe and a wonderful character – person – in Sister Fidelma. Let’s forget all this nonsense about whether or not it is historically true (of this universe!) and, as Tremayne himself puts it, “enter Fidelma’s world” and enjoy it. For it is one of the best and most appealing alternatives to our own medieval history I have ever come across. A world in which I would love to have lived. A woman I would love to have known.

All that said, let’s get down to what actually happens in Absolution by Murder, the very first “Celtic Mystery” featuring Fidelma of Cashel.

The setting of this book (and indeed of the second book in the series, Shroud for the Archbishop) is not in Ireland at all. This one is set in Northumbria, an Anglian Kingdom in the north of what is now England, during the course of the Synod of Whitby, the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) Church Council that took place in AD 664 under the auspices of King Oswy and his cousin Hilda, Abbess of the great monastery which hosted the representatives who came from far and wide to attend the debates that would decide the future of the Church in Britain.

The Angles and Saxons had arrived in Britain as pagans, worshipping the ancient gods of the north, and were still in the process of being converted to Christianity. It was largely a matter of converting the kings and queens; the rest of the population of the various little kingdoms followed suit and did what they were told (or at least pretended to). Now the problem was that missionaries were coming into the various English kingdoms from the Celtic Church of Ireland and Scotland (though not from Wales, the people there still felt too much hostility towards the invaders), and from the Roman Church across the Channel in France and in Italy. And those two sets of missionaries representing two separate branches of Christianity held quite different beliefs on a number of points, some trivial, others more important.

One was the date of Easter, which the Celtic Church calculated by the same method as the Eastern Orthodox Church: half the population ended the fast for Lent and celebrated the Feast of Easter one, two, or even sometimes four weeks before the other half. Another was the celibacy of the clergy: Celtic priests were permitted to marry, and Celtic monks and nuns to co-habit. Another was the role of the bishop. The Celtic Church was ruled by its great abbots and abbesses, the Roman Church by its bishops. Another was the form of the tonsure. And so on.

At this council, King Oswy of Nirthumbria, effective High King of England, and his councillors, would decide for cthe country as a whole: the Celtic way, or the Roman way.

Needless to say, top people of both persuasions were there, feelings were running high, and as always when there are religious disputes, unscrupulous politicians take advantage of it in their jostling for power. In this case, civil war could easily erupt, and Oswy’s brutal son Ahlfrithis ready to use the Roman cause in a bid to oust his father from power should the Celtic Church win.

Then Abbess Etain, chief speaker for the Celtic Church, is murdered. Naturally, everyone assumes she has been killed by someone in the Roman contingent in order to silence her. King Oswy asks Fidelma, an Irish princess and religious, and a highly qualified lawyer, to investigate, along with the Saxon Brother Eadulf to ensure fair play.

Next, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Deusdedit, leading the Roman delegation, is found dead. It seems he died of the “Yellow Plague”, but will anyone believe this?

If you, like me, have already read later Fidelma books, and know that she and Eadulf subsequently marry, this does not spoil at all the pleasure of watching their interplay here at their first meeting. In fact the knowledge adds a certain piquancy to everything they say and do together.

If you are already a fan of the later Fidelma books but have not read this one, do go back and start again. If not – start here: you will want to read them all.





THE UNQUIET BONES by Melvin R. Starr

1 03 2016

Unquiet Bones cover

There were advantages to residing across from the churchyard. Being awakened before dawn by the Angelus bell was not one of them. I reasoned that I could learm nothing from the corpses until daylight, anyway, so kept to my bed for two more hours. Had I known who lingered at my door I would not have been so sluggardly.

I stumbled down the stairs and lit a cresset to improve the dim glow from my east window. Before I could slice a loaf of barley bread for my breakfast, I heard a soft knock at my door. I opened it and found Alice, bundled against the cold, shivering there. I bade her come in, and asked her how long she had waited there.

‘Since the Angelus bell, sir,’ she replied.

‘Is your father taken worse?’

‘Nay, not worse. But the draught you gave him last night no longer serves. He needs another. You told me to come.’

I set about preparing the crushed seeds and root of hemp, added some crushed lettuce for good measure, then mixed the stuff in a pint of ale.

The girl watched me work in silence for a time, then spoke: ‘He’ll not live, will he?’ she said softly. It was more a statement than a question […]

My hesitation was answer enough.

‘I thought not,’ she said quietly. I turned to her, the laced ale before me. The girl stood, trembling yet from the cold, with a tear reflecting the lamp as it coursed down her cheek. ‘What will become of me?’

‘You have family. Your brothers live at the Weald, do they not? Surely one will make a place for you?’

‘No,’ she whispered, ‘they’ll not want another mouth to feed. Not mine, ‘specially.’

You get the idea. Just the kind of thing I love, and I’ll definitely be reading more of this series.

In this first story, set in England, the 1360s, Hugh is confronted by, first, human bones found in the cesspit of Bampton Castle, and then, soon afterwards, the decomposing bodies of two noblemen, a knight and his squire, found buried hastily in shallow graves in the forest.

He is Hugh de Singleton, the youngest son of a landed knight and a graduate of Oxford University and the Paris Medical Schools, and he has recently set up in Bampton as the town surgeon. Now it is to him that Lord Gilbert of Bampton turns in an attempt to identify the bones in the cesspit and establish if possible the cause of death and how they came to be there. All Hugh can do at first is to tell him that they are the bones of a teenage girl, and that she had at some point fracrtured her ankle.

The bodies in the forest, though, are known to Lord Gilbert. The knight had been staying at the castle as a suitor to Lord Gilbert’s still unmarried sister, Joan. This seems to Hugh to be more a job for the sheriff than a surgeon, but Lord Gilbert insists, so Hugh sets about interviewing people – and eventually comes up with a theory and a culprit that has everyone convinced – except him! As the man is taken for trial, Hugh is still searching for evidence that will save him and convict another – and falling in love, himself, with the stunningly beautiful Lady Joan.

 





THE LAST COMPANION by Patrick McCormack

16 01 2016

Last Companion coverSet in both Arthurian and post-Arthurian Britain, this novel is a little confusing at first, but stick with it.

Once you grasp that the hermit Budoc, protagonist of the post-Arthurian story, is one with the knight mab Petroc, hero of the Arthurian story (“mab” being the ancient British form of the Scottish “mac”, son of) and that Budoc is the last of those once known as the Companions of Arthur, it all comes clear. Though it is not until the end of the book that we learn who exactly Budoc / map Petroc was. (Though I notice that one of the other reviews here names him, which is definitely a spoiler.)

Budoc the hermit lives on a hill above a fishing village on the south coast of Cornwall, in ancient Dumnonia. Life is peaceful, for him and for the villagers. But then, suddenly, trouble comes out of the blue, and troubles do not come singly. A band of Scotti (Irishmen) arrive in the village in search of a sacred chalice which, or so they have been told, the local hermit has in his possession. They proceed to massacre the inhabitants of the village. The three-page description of the massacre is detailed and horrifying, but also, because we see it through the eyes of a village girl, very moving. Then a boat full of Saxons anchors off the beach. They are looking for somewhere to settle and know nothing of the massacre or the presence there of the Irish warriors. The hermit, and the local girl, who survived the slaughter, hide in the forest.

Meanwhile, back in Arthur’s time, the big question is whether, following his overwhelming victory against the Saxons at the Battle of Badon, Arthur will be content to remain the Magister Militum, Commander of the Armies of Britain, or will declare himself Emperor. It transpires that to do so legitimately, he must travel north to Iardomnan (the Hebrides) and pass a test and receive a chalice from the priest of the Attecotti, the first-comers And mab Petroc, our hero, has fallen in love with a mysterious female bard who sets out with them on the long journey on horseback to the north coast of Dumnonia and by ship up through the Irish Sea to the Western Isles of Scotland.

Don’t miss McCormack’s ten-page appendix on the historical background to the novel. The story is full of myth and magic, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, for so was Britain at the time, but it is not fantasy in any sense; it is realistic and historically accurate all the author has done in effect is to give the name Arthur to the Commander of the British forces at Badon and go from there.








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