Mariana de la Mar 1 – FREE Today!

30 11 2017

FREE today on Amazon Kindle — 30th Nov-4th Dec

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THE SUBTLE SERPENT by Peter Tremayne

23 11 2017

A Celtic Mystery featuring Sister Fidelma – Ireland , AD 666

Sister Síomha turned slowly wondering what Brónach was staring at in such a horror-struck fashion.
What she saw made her raise a hand to her mouth as if to suppress a cry of fear.
Hanging by one ankle, which was secured to the rope on which the pail was usually suspended, was a naked female body. It was still glistening white from its immersion in the icy water of the deep well. The body was hanging head downwards so that the upper part of the torso, the head and shoulders, were beyond their view being hidden in the well-head.
[…]
Sister Síomha moved to the well-head and peered down, hands reaching forward to swing the body out of the well. Then, with a sharp cry which she could not stifle, she turned away, her face becoming a mask of shocked surprise.
Curious, Sister Brónach moved forward and peered into the well-head. In the semi-gloom of the well she saw that where the head of the body should have been was nothing. The body had been decapitated. What remained of the neck and shoulders were stained dark with blood.

In the Abbey of the Salmon of the Three Wells, the naked and mutilated corpse of a young woman is discovered in one of the wells. She had been whipped, her head had been hacked off – so there was no means of identifying her – and tied to her left arm was a stick of aspen wood on which Ogham characters had been carved. The Ogham read: “Bury her well. The Mórrigú has awakened!” In her other hand, by contrast, she still clasped a copper crucifix.

A great mystery, and Fidelma is sent to try to solve it. She travels by ship, for the abbey is on the coast, and as they are nearing their destination they sight a French merchant vessel heading erratically towards some submerged rocks. Ross, the captain of Fidelma’s ship, investigates. It turns out that the French ship has been abandoned. Apart from a few traces of blood, there is no sign of either crew or passengers, or of cargo.

Another great mystery.

But then Fidelma finds a Missal she recognises. She had given it to her friend Brother Eadulf when she parted from him in Rome. How had it come to be here? Yet another mystery – and now Fidelma has a personal interest in solving it.

Those of us who have read later stories in the series will by now be completely hooked, for we already know that Eadulf is fated to become Fidelma’s “Watson”. Will it happen here, in this book, we wonder – our sympathies all with Eadulf, for Fidelma can be quite as clever, as arrogant and as sarcastic as Sherlock Holmes ever was.

As always with this series, then: highly recommended.





SHROUD OF DISHONOUR by Maureen Ash

17 11 2017

A Templar Knight Mystery

 

Lincoln, May, 1202

 

It was not the third but the fifth book in this series which came my way – I am working serendipitously here with second-hand paperbacks – and this one opens with an unusual and mysterious Prologue: two Knights Templar outside a brothel in the suburbs of Acre (in Outremer, the Holy Land), one reluctant to enter, the other determined to go in and do his business – which is not, as it happens, what you might expect.

 

It is a story that would be all too easy to spoil by inadvertently blurting out “spoilers”; suffice it to say that what happens there, then, is intimately connected with the death a few months later in Lincoln of two prostitutes, and an attack on a third who manages to defend herself with a sharp little knife she carries on her belt (wise girl). (Though no doubt in modern Britain she would be charged with assault and being in possession of a deadly weapon.)

 

Why prostitutes? wonders our hero, Sir Bascot de Marins. Because they are easy victims, peculiarly vulnerable and defenceless? Yet the killer seems to be targeting the Templars rather than prostitutes as a group: he makes each murder look as though it had been committed by a member of the Order.

 

Or is the killer in fact a member of the Order?

 

Bascot, who first came to Lincoln (with Gianni, a starving street-kid he had picked on his travels, tagging along) in order to recuperate after eight years as a captive – a slave – in the Middle East, has now rejoined the Order and is due to sail for Portugal, where the Templars are committed to aiding the Portuguese in their fight against the Moors. But of course he is roped in to assist in the investigation and driven by his hatred of cold-blooded murder of the innocent and defenceless he does so with his usual quiet modesty.

 

But will he go to Portugal when all this is sorted out? Will the next Templar Knight Mystery be set there, among the olives and the orange trees? Or will this be the last of these books? You have to read to the very end to find out – and to find out who has been going around killing working girls, and why.

 

I love this series, which is set in my second favourite period (the 12th and early 13th centuries), in this case during the reign of King John, son of Henry II (though the King himself does not appear in this story). 





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 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.