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.


CHAINS OF FOLLY by Roberta Gellis

4 10 2014

Chains of FollyBack in the days when King Stephen still ruled a troubled and divided kingdom, and Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine were still buried deep in the tarot pack, one small part of London had its own queen, the beautiful  Magdalene la Bâtarde. She was all that Eleanor was to be, and more so, but the paths of their lives were utterly different and Magdalene ended up as a whore, a madam with her own up-market whorehouse, and the proud mistress of William of Ypres, King Stephen’s right-hand man. She also often acted as Lord William’s agent, for she was well placed to hear of men’s doings and learn their secrets. As she observes somewhere in this book, much is revealed in pillow-talk.

Chains of Folly is the fourth in the Magdalene la Bâtarde series … I remember reading of Magdalene for the first time in Chapter One of A Mortal Bane:

Magdalene la Bâtarde, whoremistress, she who had been Arabel de St. Foi until her husband died of a knife in the heart and she had fled before she could be accused of his murder …

I was hooked. I read Bone of Contention and A Personal Devil  – then waited – and waited – for the paperback edition of Chains of Folly. I don’t think there ever was one. I now have in my hand an ex-library hardback I came across in a charity shop.

I think I understand the problem. For Magdalene addicts like me it is essential reading, and I loved it. But I have to say that it is a bit slow compared with the others, a bit of a filler in the ongoing story of Magdalene and her circle; I wouldn’t recommend it unless, as I say, you are already hooked. (And after a filler, Roberta, should come another great story. We are waiting!)

A dead prostitute is found in the Bishop of Winchester’s bed-chamber. We know already, from the Prologue, that she was already dead when she was placed there to embarrass him and be a source of scandal about him and that the Bishop knows nothing of her. Telling the reader this is probably a mistake. If we hadn’t been sure, and Magdalene and her friend, the Bishop’s Knight, Sir Bellamy of Itchen, hadn’t been sure, that might have added to the mystery.

It turns out that the woman was also a thief, and concealed on her body is a treasonous letter from the King’s enemy, Gloucester, to the Bishop, obviously intended to incriminate him. How did she come by this letter? Who killed her and put her in the Bishop’s room? And more to the point, will Magdalene and Bell (Sir Bellamy) who have quarrelled (he adores her, but can’t cope with her being a whore and Lord William’s mistress) ever get together again? Not just working together to solve the mystery, but in bed together.

As I say, I wouldn’t have missed it. If you are already a Magdalene la Bâtarde fan, try to get hold of a copy. If not, yet, go for A Mortal Bane – that and the second in the series, Bone of Contention, are now available as Kindle downloads, and are as good as it gets in the Medieval Mystery genre.

AN ANCIENT EVIL by Paul Doherty

26 06 2014

An Ancient Evil coverThis is the first in a series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by my favourite author of medieval mysteries, Paul Doherty, author of – among many other great tales – the immensely successful series known as The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan. But this series is different in that it doesn’t have a single protagonist, a medieval sleuth like Brother Athelstan, going from book to book, but a whole group of characters who take it in turn to tell the tales that make up the series. As in the original Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer’s pilgrims are on their way from the Tabard Inn, Southwark (on the Thames, opposite the walled City of London) to the shrine of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, and to while away the time, each tells a tale, sometimes edifying, often amusing.

In the Prologue to the present book, the landlord of the Tabard, who is to accompany them on the pilgrimage, suggests that each evening the pilgrims should take turns to tell another tale: “‘So when we move out tomorrow to St Thomas’s watering hole, let us tell a merry tale to instruct or amuse. But, at night,’ his voice fell, ‘let it be different.’ He stared round the now quiet company. ‘Let us tell a tale of mystery that will chill the blood, halt the heart and curl the locks upon our heads.’

An Ancient Evil, the Knight’s Tale (he is first in the Chaucer original, and first here) is a tale of strigoi.

Strigoi are the evil dead arising from their tombs at night. It is a Romanian word which also exists in the form striga, witch, and seems originally to have meant an evil witch with vampiric tendencies (like a lamia?). In Italian, strega, streghe, means witch. The Romanian and Italian words both derive from the Latin strix, striga, screech-owl. Which brings us to metamorphosis – shape-shifting – and the question: Is the striga (the witch/vampire) primarily a nocturnal bird, or is she basically human?

In An Ancient Evil, the strigoi are the undead, vampires whose origin seems to be Moldavia, the Transylvanian Alps and the ancient Romanian principality of Wallachia. Indeed, they are the “ancient evil”, for the tale begins 250 years earlier when, in the outskirts of Oxford, a strigoi, a “devil incarnate” which”had travelled from Wallachia in the Balkans pretending to be a man dedicated to the service of God“, was buried alive rather than burnt, and a monastery built over him. Now, 250 years later, a spate of horrible murders (whole families with their throats cut and bodies drained of blood) brings Sir Godfrey Evesdon to Oxford as the King’s Commissioner, to investigate and carry out judgement. He is accompanied by a Scottish clerk named Alexander McBain and a blind exorcist, Dame Edith Mohun, herself a survivor of “the dark forests and lonely, haunted valleys of Wallachia and Moldavia”, where she had been a captive, and had been blinded when she tried to protect herself. The two men cannot believe that the strigoi has survived in his coffin all these years. “Have you not listened?” she snaps. ‘The Strigoi never die. If their corpses survive, they merely sleep!’

Interestingly, the Romanies we meet in the book travelling around Britain will not go near Oxford or the Thames Valley.

As the tale unfolds, there are interludes in which the story is discussed by the shocked pilgrims. Is it true, they want to know, or is it simply a tale to frighten children? Is the middle-aged knight telling the tale, whom they know simply as “Sir Knight”, himself the hero, Sir Godfrey, when he was a young man? And is the strigoi who survived still hunting him, intent on revenge, following him – following them – along the road? Perhaps even one of them?

A great start to the series.


19 05 2014


Another anthology of historical mysteries, this one focusing entirely on murder, with stories chosen by Maxim Jakubowski – an expert if ever there was one.

In the medieval period – which of course I turned to first – the tales range from Peter Tremayne’s “Who Stole the Fish?” (Ireland, AD 664), in which Sister Fidelma investigates the disappearance of a large salmon from the monastery kitchen (along with the brother who was cooking it, but no one seems to care about him), to Paul Docherty’s “Id Quod Clarum” (Oxford, 1441), in which the obnoxious professor of theology collapses and dies of henbane or belladonna poisoning while delivering a lecture.

Of the stories set between those two dates, I especially liked Kate Ellis’ “The Fury of the Northmen” (South coast of Devon, Britain, AD 997) where we see a young woman take the lead in unearthing the true facts of a killing in a male-dominated Saxon village, and Susanna Gregory’s “The Trebuchet Murder” (Cambridge, 1380) in which yet another obnoxious professor of theology is the victim. (I am beginning to wonder whether it is characteristic of medieval mystery writers that they once studied theology and fantasised about murdering the professor? From what I hear, academic theologians can indeed be an arrogant and obnoxious lot.)

Then there is a longer story, “Raven Feeder” by Manda Scott (Orkney/Norway, AD 999) that I enjoyed. Its theme is the clash between the old religion of Odin, Thor and Freya, and the religion of the White Christ which was being imposed on all and sundry by the brutal Olaf Trygvason, King of Norway. Excellently imagined and written.

Finally, two wonderful stories set 2000 years earlier. First, Amy Myers’ “Who Killed Dido?” (Carthage, 10th Century BC): the culprit is one of the gods, and the investigator Aphrodite, the goddess of love herself! Then there is “Investigating the Silvius Boys” by Lindsey Davis (of Falco fame), in which the victim is Remus and the “perp” his brother Romulus; brother against brother “one of the oldest crimes in the world,” as she says herself on the first page of the story. (I’m not giving anything away.)

A great collection

THE BEGOTTEN by Lisa T. Bergren

8 10 2013

The Begotten coverIt is a fact that in his letters to the Christians of Corinth, St Paul refers to an earlier letter or letters he had sent them, and the author takes that as her starting point in this outstanding medieval mystery.

The story is set in Siena in the year 1339, but the Prologue takes us back a further five hundred years to the iconoclasts of the Byzantine Church in Constantinople. These people, extreme puritans, were intent on destroying all ‘graven images’, and that meant not only statues and icons but also illuminated manuscripts, the beautifully illustrated copies of Biblical and other texts that, thankfully, were always reverently preserved in other parts of Christendom. In the Prologue, a man is arrested and sent to the stake to be burnt to ashes along with the Bible that he has spent years copying out and illustrating; but in the last moments, some pages are torn out and saved by his apprentice, who carries them west to Italy.

There they disappear from sight, as well they might, for they are part of a non-canonical book, the earlier letter of Paul to the Corinthians, and the illustrations are, or become, a visual prophecy of a movement, a group of people, the Gifted, each one of whom has to a special extent one of the gifts (such as the gift of healing) mentioned by Paul in his other letters.

Now, in 1339, the prophecy is being fulfilled. Lady Daria d’Angelo of Siena discovers that she has the gift of healing, and from then on her whole life changes. But the group who gather around her are opposed by another group whose leader is a nobleman in league with the Devil, a group that has already committed human sacrifice in the catacombs beneath the city of Rome. And in the background, aware of the prophecy and observing events, are Cardinal Boeri and the Bishop of Rome. Yes, the Bishop of Rome, for this story takes place during the period when the papacy was resident in Avignon, France, and these two men dream of bringing it back home to Italy. They believe they can use the Gifted, once they are established and revealed, to defeat the sorcerer and bring glory to Rome.

The Begotten is well written, the characters are authentic and memorable, and the atmosphere is perfect. This I am sure is how Toscana was as that time: we even have the painter Lorenzetti Ambrogio (1290-1348) painting the frescoes in the Hall of the Nine (you can still see them in the Palazzo Pubblico if you happen to be passing that way!) Here he is Daria’s childhood friend, a man she trusts when there is treachery all around her.

I am very much looking forward to reading the two sequels, The Betrayed and The Blessed. So don’t be put off by what I am about to say next: If you are going to use any part of the “thou – thee – thy – thine” group of words, the old second person singular, then at least within one sentence, one utterance, you must not mix them up with “you”. But what happens here? I quote:

“You may count on me as thy protector “

“Vincenzo, you have kept thy promise “

“If you do not bid thy bride farewell, you will …”

“Fare thee well, Tatiana. I have loved you “

“I thank you for thy kind words, Brogi “

“I thank thee for thy sworn fealty. You may rise “

The errors are not even consistent: compare the last two lines quoted, “I thank thee for thy” and “I thank you for thy”; and consider the refusal to use “thou” along with “thy” in the first three examples, and compare it with this, where “thou” is used but not “thy”:

“… thou will find your thirst quenched … thou will find your bones warmed …  ”

And then there is the problem of the verb form to be used with “thou” as in the above “thou will” and in, for example:

“Do what thou wish with my bones “

Please! Thou wilt find new life  Do what thou wishest with my bones 

Fine writing spoilt by careless editing.

And while we are on the subject of careless editing, there are some vocabulary slips, too. One that irritated me enough for me to note it down was “You may abide with us for as long as you deign necessary.” Come on!  – as long as you deem necessary. And this is from people who no doubt would not deign to read a self-published “unedited” novel.

THE DEVIL’S DOMAIN by Paul Doherty

12 03 2013

Busy at the moment, but here is a review I posted a while back on, 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!

Devil's Domain tnl

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.

BEHOLD A PALE HORSE by Peter Tremayne

5 06 2012

BAPH coverAnother story set in Peter Tremayne’s strange 7th-century Ireland, a free, democratic and egalitarian society where kings are elected, there is complete equality between men and women, slavery is unheard of, and everyone has a hot bath every evening.

Actually, this story is set in Italy, not Ireland, but Fidelma keeps making invidious comparisons, so neither we nor anyone else around her is allowed for one moment to forget that Italy is a very backward and primitive place compared with the south-east of Ireland.

I am beginning to wonder whether not just fictional characters but you and I – “real” people in the “real” world – have different pasts, different histories; whether we in fact inhabit different worlds.

I am an only child, but I have friends who assure me their childhood memories are different from those of their siblings – and as regards certain important incidents, totally different. My own memories do not altogether coincide with those of my mother and grandmother. OK. But, when I sit down with old school friends to chat and reminisce over a drink,  it amazes me to find that our memories often differ diametrically.

So why should I be surprised that Peter Tremayne’s idea of 7th-century Ireland is so different from mine? Perhaps we both lived previous lives in early medieval Ireland – but a different early medieval Ireland, in what were obviously different worlds, different universes.

I am not carping. I love Tremayne’s Ireland – and Europe – and I adore Fidelma. She is everything I would wish to be if I were fortunate enough to live a life in that Ireland at that time.

And now, on with the story.

Tremayne begins by telling us that during a visit to the Trebbia Valley in Italy, he was persuaded to set a Fidelma story in the famous Abbey of Bobium. As it was difficult to organise chronologically, he broke his usual habit of writing the books in sequence and set this one immediately after Shroud for the Archbishop, when Fidelma was on her way home from Rome where she had been with Brother Eadulf. (Whom she had no reason to believe she would ever meet again. I love knowing what is going to happen later!)

After being caught in a storm, the ship she is on puts in at Genua (sic) for urgent repairs. While waiting for another ship to come along on which she might take passage, she learns that her one-time teacher, Brother Ruadan, now an old man, is at the Abbey of Bobium. He has apparently been set upon by robbers and is not expected to live more than a few days. Naturally, she hastens there to bring him comfort, only to find that it was not robbers at all. He was beaten up and left for dead because he got wind of some kind of conspiracy centred in the Abbey itself. Apart from him, at least one person has already been killed, and others will follow as Fidelma begins asking questions and the conspirators start to panic.

Various monks keep taking her aside and telling her she is in danger, she should leave now, immediately, but that of course only makes her more determined than ever to stay and solve the mystery.

As does being abducted and taken to the lair of a mountain war-lord whose varied sources of income include selling young females who fall into his hands to slavers! Would Fidelma ever see Ireland – or even Italy! – again?

A good story, one of Tremayne’s best, replete as always with distinctive characters, and his handling of the return to the young and less self-confident Fidelma is flawless.

[This post is being published simultaneously on Medieval Mysteries.]