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.





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 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 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.





GHOSTLY MURDERS by Paul Doherty

29 01 2015

Ghostly MurdersThis is the fourth and in some ways the best yet of Doherty’s series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Ghostly Murders is in fact the Poor Priest’s tale (his other tale) a ghost story in which two brothers, both young, both priests, get caught up in the aftermath of a horrifying crime involving some Templars who were fleeing for their lives at a time when all the world had turned against them.

But of course, before that tale can begin, the pilgrims must settle down for the night. And this particular night they find themselves caught in an evening mist close to dangerous marshes on which they can see lights (“corpse candles”) flickering in the growing darkness, so they decide to stop in a nearby village. Only the village is deserted, and has been since the Black Death thirty years earlier, and not only deserted but downright eerie, and not made any less so by the pilgrims themselves.

‘Let’s pray,’ said Mine Host, ‘to St Thomas à Becket whose blessed bones we go to venerate at Canterbury!’

The Miller gave a loud fart in answer, making the Carpenter snigger and giggle. Nevertheless, the pilgrims grouped closer. The Summoner moved his fat little horse behind that of the Franklin. He was not just interested in the Franklin’s costly silk purse, white as the morning milk. Oh no, the Summoner smiled to himself: he, like some others, was increasingly fascinated by this motley group of pilgrims making their way to Canterbury in the year of Our Lord 1389. All seemed to be acquainted with each other and the Summoner definitely knew the Franklin. They had met many years ago on a blood-soaked island. He was sure of that, as he was sure that the Franklin had had a hand in his father’s death. He would have liked to have talked to his colleague the Pardoner but he was now suspicious for the Summoner had recently discovered that the Franklin and the Pardoner were close friends. Indeed, this cunning man, with his bag full of relics and the bones of saints slung on a string round his neck, was certainly not what he claimed to be.

Behind the Summoner, the Friar, nervous of the cloying mist, plucked at the harp slung over his saddle horn. As he played, the Friar glanced furtively at the Monk riding alongside him. The Friar closed his eyes and strummed at the harp strings, calling up a little ditty he had learnt, anything to drive away the fears. He did not like the Monk sitting so arrogantly on his brown-berry palfrey: that smooth, fat face, those dark, soulless eyes and that smile, wolfish, the eye-teeth hanging down like jagged daggers. Who was the Monk? Why was the Knight so wary of him? And the latter’s son? The young, golden-haired Squire, he always kept an eye on the Monk, hand on the pommel of his sword, as if he expected the Monk to launch a sudden assault upon his father, the Knight. Was the Monk, the Friar wondered, one of those strigoi mentioned by the Knight in his tale? Did the Monk belong to the Undead? Those damned souls who wandered the face of the earth, finding their sustenance in human blood?

The whole setting reminds the Poor Priest of another Kentish village, Scawsby, and when prevailed upon to tell a tale he tells them of the strange events in Scawsby during his time there.

In fact, he tells them, it had all begun much earlier, in 1308, in the reign of the present king’s grandfather. A group of Templar Knights, fleeing from London to the coast, had been lured into just such treacherous marshes on just such a misty evening and there, mired and helpless, set upon by robbers led by the local lord of the manor and the parish priest, intent on seizing the Templar treasure.

‘We have been trapped,’ one of the knights whispered. ‘They have led us into a marsh.’

‘There must be paths!’ Sir William exclaimed. ‘Just like the one we are standing on.’ He grasped his sword tighter. ‘The Virgin, the Veronica?’ […]

An arrow whipped out of the darkness and took him full in the shoulder.

All the Templars are killed, but as he dies, their leader, Sir William Chasny, shouts “in English, in Latin, in French, ‘We shall be watching you! We shall always be watching you!‘”

Seventy years later, following the suicide of the previous incumbent, a new young priest, Philip Trumpington, comes to the village with his brother, Edmund. There, he is confronted by the past, for the church is full of ghosts, both good (the murdered Templars) and bad (especially the ghost of Romanel, the priest who organised the massacre), and full of voices whispering ‘Spectamus te, semper spectamus te! We are watching you, we are always watching you!’

As if the ghosts were not enough, there is also an attack on the village by a band of French marauders. But why on this small inland village? Can they too be after the Templar treasure?

Another of Doherty’s seemingly inexhaustible stream of wonderful minor characters makes an appearance in this book: the coffin woman. Read it, if only for her!

She is old and seems to know more about what happened seventy years ago than she is telling. What was her part in all this, wonders Philip.

The tension builds as Doherty skillfully blends his three story lines: the pilgrims, Philip and his brother, and their predecessor Romanel.

But unlike Romanel, the Poor Priest is not interested in “treasure on earth”. Will he therefore prove immune to the evil that has corrupted the souls of and led to the death of so many others?





A TOURNAMENT OF MURDERS by Paul Doherty

7 01 2015

tournament-of-murdersThis is the third in Doherty’s series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,following on from An Ancient Evil and A Tapestry of Murders . This time the franklin tells the tale, and it begins on the bloody field of Poitiers where Sir Gilbert Savage, an English knight, has been mortally wounded. He orders his squire, Richard Greenele – our young hero – to leave the field and return at once to England. There, Richard (who had always believed himself to be an orphan of unknown parentage) is to go to Colchester, where a lawyer holds a letter for him written by his father and due to be delivered to him now that he has reached the age of eighteen. This letter will solve the mystery surrounding his birth and his family – who he is. When he gets to Colchester, he finds the city stricken by the plague, the lawyer dead, and the lawyer’s beautiful daughter, Emmeline, alone and terrified in the boarded up house.

The letter she gives him tells of murder and treachery, and of the deaths of his mother and father on an island off the north-east Essex coast which had been his father’s property until he was wrongly convicted of murder and treason. Richard travels there with Emmeline and two other companions he has picked up on the road, a royal verderer and master-bowman who rescues him when he is attacked by outlaws in the forest, and a charlatan warlock whom they save from being hanged.

It is the middle of winter, the great house is derelict and the island seems deserted; but the group are haunted by ghosts, and, it turns out, by living men: a band of vicious outlaws intent on murder and a weird hermit, Buthlac, who remembers Richard’s parents.

‘Your father!’ he exclaimed, one bony finger outstretched. ‘Aye, you have his face, the Lady Maria’s eyes. I thought that when I first saw you.’

‘So why did you try to kill me?’

‘I protect the island,’ Buthlac replied defiantly. ‘Oh, they come across the bridge there looking for plunder, wanting to set up house, even though royal proclamations say this island and all on it belong to the Crown.’ The hermit’s face broke into a wicked smile. ‘But I scares them off. You see, I am the ghost. I am the spirit of the woods. If they shelter in the house, strange fires begin, strange sounds in the night.’

‘You didn’t try that last night,’ Richard commented.

‘There were too many of you and I was curious. You didn’t look like Moon-people or outlaws and old Buthlac was curious. I sits and I watches.’

‘Did you see the knight?’

Buthlac’s eyes grew cunning.

‘Did you see the knight?’ Richard repeated. ‘He charged me across the open field.’

‘Oh, I sees him all right,’ Buthlac replied slowly. ‘But, there again, you see, Master, just because I play at ghosts and demons, doesn’t mean …’ He stared round the trees fearfully. ‘Oh, no, you take Buthlac’s words seriously, it doesn’t mean the real demons don’t prowl here.’

The usual, highly successful, Doherty mix of medieval murder and magical menace. I am really enjoying reading this series again.





A TAPESTRY OF MURDERS by Paul Doherty

7 01 2015

tapestry-of-murdersIn this sequel to An Ancient Evil (the knight’s tale) in Doherty’s series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the man of law tells a story about the events which followed the death of Isabella, Dowager Queen of England and mother of Edward III. She was also the daughter of the French King Philip IV (yes, that Philip – the persecutor of the Templars and the Jews), and known as “The She-Wolf of France”. Many years earlier, she had led a rebellion against her husband, Edward II, and after he had been murdered she ruled England in his stead, with her lover, the English nobleman, Mortimer.

However, her son grew up, as sons will. He had Mortimer arrested and executed, and he incarcerated Isabella in Castle Rising, an impregnable fortress in a remote part of East Anglia. Twenty-eight years later, she died. But she had a secret, a secret that her son, the king, was desperate to prevent from getting to France and from being made public.

In his tale, the man of law, Nicholas Chirke, recalls those days, when, as a young man setting out on his career, he was called upon to act for the defence in a murder case that turned out to be only one of a series of murders all revolving around this precious secret so long guarded by the dead queen.

Not much in the way of occult phenomena here (unusually for this series) – apart that is from one very believable ghost – but a very real (indeed authentic) medieval mystery, set against the background of sleazy streets and taverns (and larger-than-life characters) that Doherty has made his own.

They left the tavern and hired a ride on a cart going up Fleet Street. The day was cold but the thoroughfare was packed with carts fighting to get in or out of the city. Pedlars with packhorses and sumpter ponies and wandering priests and scholars thronged around them. Crippled beggars, clutching makeshift wheel barrows, hurried into the city to take up their usual positions for the day. At Fleet prison, just past the stinking city ditch, the execution cart was being prepared to take convicted felons up past Farringdon into West Smithfield. The prisoners were bound hand and foot and some – a woman sentenced to be boiled for poisoning her husband with burnt spiders, a footpad guilty of stealing a silver crucifix from a church in Clerkenwell, a river pirate and two counterfeiters – had placards slung around their necks advertising their crimes. The red-masked executioner tried to drive off the bystanders and onlookers with his whip, helped by the sheriff’s men with their tipped staves. A drunken bagpipe player had to be helped to his feet so that he could give the death cart a musical accompaniment to the execution ground … …

Better than any film.