A TOURNAMENT OF MURDERS by Paul Doherty (Review)

This 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.

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A TAPESTRY OF MURDERS by Paul Doherty (Review)

In 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.

AN ANCIENT EVIL by Paul Doherty (Review)

This 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.

THE DEVIL’S DOMAIN by Paul Doherty (Review)

Busy at the moment, but here is a review I posted a while back on MedievalMysteries.com, and thought I might repost here. It is a favourite of mine (the review I mean) because I talk about myself in it and introduce the new reader to Brother Athelstan – a great favourite of mine!

I recently came across three of Paul Doherty’s Brother Athelstan books that some kind traveller with excellent taste had left behind in Kolkata (for new members, I’m in India!). I picked them up at one of the second-hand bookshops down by the Maidan – in Sudder Street, I think. Strange, the things people carry with them when they come here, and subsequently escape into. Homesickness for England? Homesickness for the medieval world? Both, certainly, in my case. Alright, I could catch a plane and be in London in hours. Somehow, though, that is not the London I miss.

I have never fitted in in modern London. While I was growing up (I was born in 1975) I witnessed what little grace was left from the post-war years and the 60s destroyed by the brutal philistinism of the Thatcher years. It is, I believe, recovering slowly, but when I was a kid I used to escape into the past with books like Georgette Heyer’s unforgettable Regency stories, then ancient times, ancient Israel (Frank Slaughter’s Biblical novels!) and ancient Britain. By the time I left school and made my first trip out here on my own (I took a year off, a gap year, before they became fashionable) I had started reading books set in the times my wonderful grandmother used to tell me about – the times before, during, and immediately after the Second World War.

Then, finally, while I was at university, my tutor told me to read Anya Seton’s Katherine, and I was hooked. I had found the Middle Ages, and I knew at once that my grandmother was right: she believed in reincarnation, and I felt so completely at home in medieval Britain that I knew I had been there before, had lived not one but possibly a series of lives including one in the second half of the 14th century and one in Saxon times during the clash between Nordic paganism and Christianity.

What a ridiculously long introduction!

Anyway, Doherty’s Brother Athelstan books have always rung absolutely true to me. This is exactly what London was like in the 1370s and 80s. So you can imagine my delight when I found not one but three, two of which I had never read before, in a pile of books beneath a picture of Goddess Saraswati. One was this, The Devil’s Domain, and the others The Field of Blood and The House of Shadows, the ones which follow it in the series. And none of them had been reviewed for this site. Perfect. (In fact, I found that while we had reviewed a great many Doherty books, these that I now clutched in my hand would be the very first from the “Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan” series.

Some background: Brother Athelstan is a Dominican Friar and is the priest in charge of the Church of St Erconwald in the extremely sleazy (but homely) suburb of Southwark, which lies south of the river, at the other end of the bridge from the City of London itself. His twin attributes of a razor sharp mind and total incorruptibility have gained him a reputation as an entirely honest investigator, and among those who bring their unsolved and apparently insoluble problems to him are Sir John Cranston, the Lord Coroner of London.

In this particular book, The Devil’s Domain, the phrase “the devil’s domain” means different things to different people. To Brother Athelstan, it seems to be this world, with all its suffering and cruelty. To his friend Sir John, it is parts of this world, like the area known as Whitefriars, on the north bank between the City itself and Westminster (much worse than the more notorious Southwark), and the house ruled over by the evil Vulpina. To the group of French naval officers held captive while the authorities await their ransom money from France, it is Hawkmere Manor, the dismal house where they are imprisoned.

“The authorities” at this time, of course, being John of Gaunt, the Regent. And when one of the captives is poisoned, he, John of gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, summons Cranston and Athelstan to investigate. It seems that the French themselves suspect one of the captives of being a traitor, a secret English agent.

Then another is murdered with the same poison.

Meanwhile, the historical background produces a sub-plot. The Peasants’ Revolt is brewing and ready to come to a head, and Athelstan’s church is being used as a meeting place by some of the leaders of the revolutionaries – starving peasants at the end of their tether – now all ready to pour out of Essex and Kent and into London. When this comes to John of Gaunt’s ears, he wonders whether Athelstan is involved. After all, the little priest’s symapthies openly lie with the poor and oppressed.

In another sub-plot, a prostitute named Beatrice, “a quiet, rather gentle whore who sometimes dressed as a nun to please her customers”, makes a brief but tragic appearance.

And behind it all lurks an elusive assassin known as Mercurius.

This is Paul Doherty doing what he is best at, the authentic medieval mystery. No one can do it better.

THE HAUNTING by Paul Doherty (Review)

A ghost story from an author who never fails to please me. I missed this book when it first came out, probably because it was not one of his medieval mysteries. (I never miss those!)

Paul Doherty is a Roman Catholic and his familiarity with the Roman rites frequently displays itself in his stories. This is the first time, though, that the protagonist has been a Catholic priest functioning as a priest.  My favourite Brother Athelstan is, of course, a priest, but he functions as a detective, a sleuth, like Chesterton’s Father Brown.

Father Oliver Grafeld is not a detective. He is an exorcist, albeit a reluctant one. He is sent by his superior, Archbishop Manning, to Candleton Hall, a manor house in the country belonging to an old Catholic family – one of those families that simply ducked when the Reformation occurred under King Henry VIII and carried on century after century as though nothing had happened. Oh yes, they made one small adjustment: they had secret chambers where priests could be concealed built into their great houses.

And thereby hangs a tale. This tale. For the chatelaine of Candleton Hall in the time of Richard III, Henry VII and Henry VIII, was Lady Isabella Seaton, who was neither Catholic nor Protestant, but a Satanist. And when she died, she had no intention of letting any subsequent chatelaine take her place …

Father Oliver and his sister Emma are great characters, but so far as I can tell Paul Doherty has written no sequel to this story. Which is a shame.

THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Paul Doherty (Review)

Rome, August, 314 AD

Back in the Rome of mother’s-boy Emperor Constantine the Great once again; and again it is that mother, Helena, who takes control when things start getting out of hand. And once more it is Claudia she turns to when a situation calls for discretion combined with a sharp eye and an even sharper brain. For Claudia is Helena’s “little mouse”, one – perhaps the only one – of her network of secret agents and spies who can go anywhere unremarked and unremembered, for no one ever notices her.

As I said in my review of Murder Imperial and The Song of the Gladiator, these are enthralling stories set in a fascinating period of history. Though no one at the time realised it, the dozen or so years before Constantine and Helena quit Rome and moved the whole show to Byzantium and established the new imperial city of Constantinople (New Rome!), were the final years of the eight centuries of Roman hegemony and civilisation. After that, for a thousand years, the Popes ruled Rome and the West; another kettle of fish altogether.

Imagine Queen Victoria, the Empress of India (yes, that was one of her titles) and her son King Edward upping sticks in the 1880s and making New Delhi the imperial capital. What would the people of Britain – after all, it was the “British” Empire – have thought?

It is essential that the people of Rome should be happy and feel secure, or as soon as Helena and her son have their backs turned, a new pretender will claim the throne in Rome.

But the people of Rome – the one that count – are not happy at all; and they feel very insecure.

On the one hand, the sons and daughters of rich senators and generals and merchants, the élite of Rome, are being systematically kidnapped, one by one, and held to ranson.

On the other hand, a group of army veterans are being murdered, equally systematically, one by one. But do these killings have anything to do with the victims having served together eighteen years previously on Hadrian’s Wall at a time when civil unrest within the Empire was causing a breakdown of defences in such far-flung outposts? It seems there may be, because the gruesome way they are being killed and mutilated is an exact replica of what the Picts did to their enemies in a blood-feud.

But before things get better, they always get worse – much worse in a Paul Doherty story! More people die, and Murranus, the champion gladiator Claudia believes to have retired and plans to marry, ends up back in the arena.

I like Claudia, and find myself identifying with her completely. So completely that I begin to wonder whether I lived one of my previous lives in Rome during that period. But then really good historical novels always do that to me!

And the “Queen of the Night” of the title? That is not Claudia, and nor is it – as one might expect – Helena. The Queen of the Night is a stunningly beautiful deaf-mute ex-courtesan who, like Helena herself, hails from distant Britain, and is always there in the background accompanied by the eunuch who interprets the sign-language she uses. But who is she really, Claudia wonders, and what part, if any, does she play in all this?

BLOODSTONE by Paul Doherty (Review)

London, December, 1380

We (Brother Athelstan’s – and Paul Doherty’s! – loyal fans) have waited a long time for this, the eleventh of the “Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan”.

It was worth the wait.

There is a prologue during the course of which two murders are committed. In fact, the story opens with the stunning line “Sir Robert Kilverby was about to be murdered.” A real hooker. How can you not read on after that? And when poor Sir Robert has been safely done away with (at his Cheapside mansion, alone in a locked room) we are whisked off to the Abbey of St Fulcher-on-Thames, where a former master bowman in the French wars, unable to sleep, wanders out into the night and, kneeling beside the grave of an old comrade in the Abbey cemetary, is decapitated at a stroke by a mysterious swordsman.

In Chapter 1, the story proper begins with Brother Athelstan busy in the kitchen of the priest house of St Erconwald’s in Southwark, his huge one-eyed tomcat languidly watching his every move, and – with a wave of his magic wand (his pen!) Paul Doherty has us back where we have longed to be. It is, in my opinion, the most homely, the most welcoming, setting in the whole medieval fiction genre, and all his weird and wonderful parishioners are old friends.

But as always disaster in one form or another strikes – in this case the two murders – and Sir John Cranston, Lord High Coroner of London, arrives while Athelstan is conducting the Mass. For those who do not know this series, Athelstan is a like a superficially simple and deep-down saintly Sherlock Holmes, but instead of a Watson he has the one of the judicial top brass as his sleuthing-partner. Sir John calls on Brother Athelstan when faced with a mystery he has no hope of solving on his own. And especially if the mystery has to be solved, and fast, because he has the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, the boy-king Richard’s uncle and effectual ruler of England, breathing down his neck.

For Sir Robert Kilverby had with him in his room when he died the immensely precious bloodstone known as the “Passio Christi”. When his family broke down the door next morning, it had disappeared. And the soldier who was murdered almost simultaneously at the abbey was one of the Wyvern Company, the troop that had “found” the gem, or rather stolen it, from a Benedictine monastery in France.

All very intriguing and a perfect read for a couple of winter evenings (or one long winter night).

I have to say that I was hoping – am still hoping! – for a story which has as its backdrop the Peasants’ Revolt and the rioting and mayhem in Southwark in June 1381. Here, it still gets only a passing mention, with Athelstan worried because “The Upright Men, leaders of the Great Community of the Realm, were plotting bloody revolt to turn the world upside down.” But that is no reason not to enjoy this book. You will, I promise.

However, I do have a real complaint. Perhaps it is the publishers (this is published by Severn House, while the others were all published by Headline, so far as I know) but this book is full of errors which cannot be dismissed simply as typos. Such things as “At short while later” and “he can swim like an fish” I overlook, but “a man who slinks through London and the surrounding shires preaching rebellion and tradition” – presumably sedition – and “that could be achieved without little clamour” and “Athelstan startled as a flock of jays” and “Athelstan continued on” – these on consecutive pages – becomes a little wearing. A few pages later: “Chalk did not abuse you of that” and “virtually most of his community” and “May the Lord turn his face to thee and give you peace” and “As regards to Kilverby’s death“. I could go on. And on. Paul Doherty himself is, of course, incapable of writing such rubbish, or (he is a teacher!) of leaving it uncorrected. No, what presumably happened is that some semi-literate editor (yet another one) had his hands on it after the author had approved it. A shame.