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.

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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).





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.





CORPSE CANDLE by Paul Doherty

31 01 2017

England, early 14th century

corpse-candle-cover‘It was murder, wasn’t it?’ Ranulf asked sitting down on a stool.

‘Murder, and a cunning one,’ Corbett agreed. ‘But proving it and discovering the assassin will be difficult. We are going to have to poke with a long, sharp stick. In many ways Abbot Stephen was a strange man. Oh, he was holy enough and learned but self-contained and mysterious; a knight-banneret who decided to become a priest. A soldier who decided to hunt demons.’

‘Demons!’ Ranulf exclaimed.

Corbett smiled thinly. ‘Yes, Ranulf, our late Abbot was an officially appointed exorcist. Abbot Stephen would be called to assist with people who claimed to be possessed, and houses that were reputedly haunted.’

‘Sprites and goblins!’ Ranulf scoffed. ‘A legion of devils wander Whitefriars and Southwark, but they are all flesh and blood. The wickedness they perpetrate would shame any self-respecting demon. You don’t believe in that nonsense, do you?’

Corbett pursed his lips. Ranulf stared in disbelief. Chanson, delighted, stood rooted to the spot. He loved nothing better, as he’d often whispered to Ranulf, than sombre tales about witches, warlocks and sorcerers.

‘Surely, Sir Hugh, it’s arrant nonsense!’

‘Yes and no,’ Corbett replied slowly.

Another murder in a monastery – this time within a sealed chamber in the Fenland Abbey of St Martin’s-in-the-Marsh.

The Abbot, a friend of the King’s (he used to be a warrior and once saved the King’s life), has been stabbed in his own chamber with his own dagger, yet there seems to be no way anyone could have obtained access to him.

The monks are about to organise a cover-up, insisting that some outsider, some outlaw, must have broken in and killed the Abbot, but the King (Edward I) is having none of it. He promptly sends Sir Hugh with his henchman Ranulf to make enquiries.

They soon discover that the aristocratic widow who owns all the adjoining lands was on very bad terms with Abbot Stephen, refusing to communicate with him directly and arguing fiercely – through the Prior – about a disputed boundary. But is there more to it than this? It turns out that they knew each other – well – when they were young.

Meanwhile, inside the monastery, two more suspects lurk: Taverner, a “cunning man” (a confidence trickster, living on his wits) who claimed to be possessed and whom the Abbot had been planning to exorcise; and an arch-deacon from London, an “old friend” of the Abbot’s, who had ostensibly come to witness the exorcism.

Then another monk is murdered …

I like Hugh Corbett. And I especially like Ranulf, his side-kick, the “Clerk of the Green Wax” – listen to his prayer as he rides into mortal danger: “Oh Lord, look after Ranulf-atte-Newgate, as Ranulf-atte-Newgate would look after you, if he was God and you were Ranulf-atte-Newgate.

There is, it must be said, some careless editing, which is very unusual in Headline books (and especially in Paul Doherty’s books!).  For example, on p20, Ranulf asks, ‘Did you ever meet Abbot Stephen?’ ‘On a few occasions,’ Corbett replies; on p129, we are informed that “he [Corbett] had never met Abbot Stephen”.

But these are details.

What matters to me, always, is that the story grips. It is not a book to read in bed before you sleep. As with all Paul Doherty’s medieval novels, you won’t. You won’t even yawn. In fact, three hours later you’ll be getting up, book in hand to make a cup of tea.





THE PLYMOUTH CLOAK by Kate Sedley

18 01 2017

A Roger the Chapman Mystery; England, 1473

Roger reminisces about Richard III (in the time of Henry Tudor!)

The Bishop’s Palace at Exeter stands in the lee of the Cathedral, a red sandstone building, in sharp contrast to the pale Beer stone of the church. As I entered behind Timothy Plummer, there was no sign of Bishop John Bothe, but there was a hum of activity involving both his and the Duke’s officials, whose general deportment and disdainful expressions – particularly when they deigned to glance at me – indicated the measure of their self-importance. This was totally at variance with the Duke’s own courteous manners and pleasant welcoming smile […]

I had forgotten how small and delicate-looking he was, the dark curtain of hair swinging almost to his shoulders. His mouth was thin and mobile, and a deep cleft ran between the upper lip and the wide nostrils of the straight Plantagenet nose. There were shadows round the eyes, as though he slept badly, and the chin was just a little too long and full for the true handsomeness of his big, blond, elder brothers. Yet in his lifetime, I have often heard of him spoken of as the most attractive of the three, and I know women found him very good-looking. (To say as much today is akin to treason, but I shall tell the truth and hang the consequences.)

plymouth-cloakAnother – early – Roger the Chapman mystery (making a total of four now reviewed on this site: the others are The Wicked Winter, The Burgundian’s Tale, and The Prodigal Son).

It is September, 1473, and as Roger Chapman plies his trade along the south coast of England he finds the towns and villages “rife with rumours of an impending invasion. It seemed that the exiled Lancastrians were stirring, beginning to take heart once more after their defeat at Tewkesbury two years previously.One might have thought, with King Henry and his son both dead, that the focus of their disaffection had vanished; but they had transferred their loyalty to young Henry Tudor …

The problem is Duke Francis of Brittany. If he gives Henry his support, then England could be faced with a major invasion. King Edward has written a letter to Duke Francis and entrusted it to his brother Richard, later Richard III and murdered by that same usurper, Henry Tudor.

Richard has brought the letter to Exeter, where he is to meet the Royal Messenger of Edward’s choice, a certain Philip Underdown. There, hearing that Roger is in town, he asks him to accompany Underdown to Plymouth and watch his back and see him safely aboard the ship that will call for him in two days’ time. The Lancastrians are after Underdown in order to prevent the letter reaching Duke Francis. The Woodvilles are after him because they believe he knows something detrimental to the beautiful but unpopular Queen Elizabeth (Woodville). And he has deadly enemies of his own.

Reluctantly, Roger agrees – he has little choice – and they set out for Plymouth, where they hear that the ship has been delayed, so they take shelter in a manor house out in the country, not far from Plymouth. There, Underwood soon gets into trouble chasing the women, a young bride with a jealous husband, and a widowed housekeeper who takes a maternal interest in Roger but is still certainly very attractive.

After two attempts on his life, Underwood hands the letter over to Roger, saying it will be safer with him. But will he be safer with it?

Then Underwood is in fact murdered, and with Roger’s own cudgel – the “Plymouth cloak” of the title. Roger is left with the King’s vital letter to deliver, but is not allowed to leave as he is, naturally, one of the suspects.

An excellent story, and another vivid look at the period of the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. I like this series more and more with every volume I read. 





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.





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.