Brother Athelstan is the priest of St Erconwald’s in Southwark in the 1380s during the reign of Richard II, and, to pass the time, he is also the secretary of Sir John Cranston, the coroner of the City of London. Having had training not just in matters of the church but also in logic, needless to say he fills in the gaps in his day solving crimes as well. In this instance, he’s got two to deal with – Sir John asks him to assist him in the case of some dead bodies unearthed in a field outside the Paradise Inn, with all the evidence pointing towards the strangely reticent landlady. Athelstan also has to deal with three dead bodies found in his parish, one of whom is the King’s messenger – and the law dictates that if the killer of a servant of the King is not found, the entire parish will be punished. Cue dramatic musical sting!
The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan is Paul Doherty’s second longest series of novels, after the ones featuring Sir Hugh Corbett, and are set a century later. They are altogether a more thoughtful affair – both Corpse Candle and Nightshade had bodies dropping left and right, whereas this one only has one murder taking place after the opening salvo. The images of medieval London and the characters therein are beautifully realised and you can visualise easily the locale, unappetising as most of it seems. There is a slight problem that I found in that this is the ninth (I think) Athelstan novel and a couple of the characters who wander into the action, such as the so-called “vicar of hell” could have done with more of an introduction or explanation to the novice reader, but to be fair, it wasn’t difficult to follow and all it meant was that I was inclined to seek out the earlier books.
As for the mysteries, they’re not the most complicated I’ve ever come across. The royal messenger one is obvious – it’s more of a howdunnit than whodunnit and I’m baffled that Athelstan takes as long as he did to figure it out. The other case, which becomes like a ticking clock as the landlady’s trial approaches, is the more interesting of the two, and the murderer is fairly clued. There is a dreadful shortage of suspects though, which makes the
murderer very guessable.
However, the blurb writers need a kick up the backside. I quote “Certain of the widow’s innocence, yet convinced the two incidents must be related…” No, they’re not and at no point in the book does anyone suggest that they are. To be absolutely honest, I got the suspicion that Doherty came up with a couple of plots, realised that neither would fill a whole book and hence put them in the same one. Usually with two disparate crimes in a story, there is at least a thematic link if nothing else so it was something of a surprise that there wasn’t one here – at least not one that I noticed.
So to summarise, a well-written tale invoking the feel of medieval London, but don’t expect the most puzzling mystery that you’ve ever read. I will be on the lookout for more of Brother Athelstan, so I’ll report back on another of his Sorrowful Mysteries later on.
WHERE CAN I GET IT?
Still in print, I think, unlike some of the earlier books in the series, so ask at your local bookshop.