Busy at the moment, but here is a review I posted a while back on MedievalMysteries.com, and thought I might repost here. It is a favourite of mine (the review I mean) because I talk about myself in it and introduce the new reader to Brother Athelstan – a great favourite of mine!
I recently came across three of Paul Doherty’s Brother Athelstan books that some kind traveller with excellent taste had left behind in Kolkata (for new members, I’m in India!). I picked them up at one of the second-hand bookshops down by the Maidan – in Sudder Street, I think. Strange, the things people carry with them when they come here, and subsequently escape into. Homesickness for England? Homesickness for the medieval world? Both, certainly, in my case. Alright, I could catch a plane and be in London in hours. Somehow, though, that is not the London I miss.
I have never fitted in in modern London. While I was growing up (I was born in 1975) I witnessed what little grace was left from the post-war years and the 60s destroyed by the brutal philistinism of the Thatcher years. It is, I believe, recovering slowly, but when I was a kid I used to escape into the past with books like Georgette Heyer’s unforgettable Regency stories, then ancient times, ancient Israel (Frank Slaughter’s Biblical novels!) and ancient Britain. By the time I left school and made my first trip out here on my own (I took a year off, a gap year, before they became fashionable) I had started reading books set in the times my wonderful grandmother used to tell me about – the times before, during, and immediately after the Second World War.
Then, finally, while I was at university, my tutor told me to read Anya Seton’s Katherine, and I was hooked. I had found the Middle Ages, and I knew at once that my grandmother was right: she believed in reincarnation, and I felt so completely at home in medieval Britain that I knew I had been there before, had lived not one but possibly a series of lives including one in the second half of the 14th century and one in Saxon times during the clash between Nordic paganism and Christianity.
What a ridiculously long introduction!
Anyway, Doherty’s Brother Athelstan books have always rung absolutely true to me. This is exactly what London was like in the 1370s and 80s. So you can imagine my delight when I found not one but three, two of which I had never read before, in a pile of books beneath a picture of Goddess Saraswati. One was this, The Devil’s Domain, and the others The Field of Blood and The House of Shadows, the ones which follow it in the series. And none of them had been reviewed for this site. Perfect. (In fact, I found that while we had reviewed a great many Doherty books, these that I now clutched in my hand would be the very first from the “Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan” series.
Some background: Brother Athelstan is a Dominican Friar and is the priest in charge of the Church of St Erconwald in the extremely sleazy (but homely) suburb of Southwark, which lies south of the river, at the other end of the bridge from the City of London itself. His twin attributes of a razor sharp mind and total incorruptibility have gained him a reputation as an entirely honest investigator, and among those who bring their unsolved and apparently insoluble problems to him are Sir John Cranston, the Lord Coroner of London.
In this particular book, The Devil’s Domain, the phrase “the devil’s domain” means different things to different people. To Brother Athelstan, it seems to be this world, with all its suffering and cruelty. To his friend Sir John, it is parts of this world, like the area known as Whitefriars, on the north bank between the City itself and Westminster (much worse than the more notorious Southwark), and the house ruled over by the evil Vulpina. To the group of French naval officers held captive while the authorities await their ransom money from France, it is Hawkmere Manor, the dismal house where they are imprisoned.
“The authorities” at this time, of course, being John of Gaunt, the Regent. And when one of the captives is poisoned, he, John of gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, summons Cranston and Athelstan to investigate. It seems that the French themselves suspect one of the captives of being a traitor, a secret English agent.
Then another is murdered with the same poison.
Meanwhile, the historical background produces a sub-plot. The Peasants’ Revolt is brewing and ready to come to a head, and Athelstan’s church is being used as a meeting place by some of the leaders of the revolutionaries – starving peasants at the end of their tether – now all ready to pour out of Essex and Kent and into London. When this comes to John of Gaunt’s ears, he wonders whether Athelstan is involved. After all, the little priest’s symapthies openly lie with the poor and oppressed.
In another sub-plot, a prostitute named Beatrice, “a quiet, rather gentle whore who sometimes dressed as a nun to please her customers”, makes a brief but tragic appearance.
And behind it all lurks an elusive assassin known as Mercurius.
This is Paul Doherty doing what he is best at, the authentic medieval mystery. No one can do it better.