Murder’s Immortal Mask by Paul Doherty

It’s 314 AD and a body-ripping, eye-gouging killer of Rome’s prostitutes, the Nefandus, has returned after years of absence to haunt the night. In the meantime Attius Enobarbus, a henchman of the previous emperor Maxentius and keeper of the secret of the location of the tomb of Peter the Galilean, is found stabbed in the back, despite having locked himself securely in his own vault-like chambers. Emperor Constantine has plans for Rome but the ex-deacon Valentinius has his own schemes. As more and more people fall in the streets, how exactly is Claudia, special agent to the Empress supposed to bring order to the chaos?

This is the fourth and most recent of Doherty’s Rome series featuring Claudia and friends, and, just like the Corbett, Athelstan and Roger Shallot books (first review coming very soon), his description of life in a far-off time and place is stunning. Horrible notions, such as the acceptance that one may be killed when walking the streets at night without anyone batting an eyelid, are the norm in Ancient Rome and if nothing else, I felt I learned a lot about Roman life that I didn’t know before. But this book is more than just a history lesson. Isn’t it?

Of course it is. There are a number of mysteries to solve – who was the original Nefandus? Has he returned, or is there a copycat? Who killed Attius and how? What is going on in Byzantium? And most creepily of all, who is that in the opening sequence having a conversation with a crucified, lacquered skeleton?

Some of the mysteries are easier to spot than others. I’d say my success rate was about 50/50, but some of the revelations, in particular the opening sequence explanation, are exceptional. I had to get my jaw off the floor after that one. The locked room is also well done, although I thought some of the more obvious explanations were dismissed too easily. There’s also a very impressive twist that seems almost out of place in such a book, being more typical of a different author who I won’t name, as it might blow the surprise.

Oh, I do feel that I should mention that even though the Nefandus’ crimes are quite horrible, the detail is not dwelt upon. This isn’t a lurid serial-killer schlocker. Not by a long shot.

If I had a small niggle, I’d say that Claudia is a bit bland, but, as I’ve discovered with Hugh Corbett, I might have felt differently if I had read these books in sequence – time to go and hunt down Murder Imperial, the first in the series, methinks. Claudia is, however, surrounded by an entertaining bunch of rogues and as such, there’s always something to grab the attention.

Anyway, this comes recommended. Not quite the heights of The White Rose Murders, but you certainly won’t be bored with this one.


I found it in Waterstones (after my chat with the lady in charge of the crime section) so you probably can too. It’s from 2008 so it’s still in print.

WARNING: I’ve just read the first of the series, Murder Imperial, and it’s very easy to spot the villain due to most of the suspects appearing in this later book. So I recommend reading that (and very good it is too) first.


  1. […] In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel Spoiler Free Reviews of Fair Play Detective Fiction Skip to content HomeAbout the authorEllery QueenPaul DohertyHugh CorbettMathilde of WestminsterThe Ancient Rome MysteriesThe Canterbury TalesThe Memoirs of Sir Roger ShallotThe Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother AthelstanSir Henry Merrivale ← The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen Murder’s Immortal Mask by Paul Doherty → […]


  2. Enjoying all these posts. This series of Doherty’s is completely new to me. After reading so many of your reviews of Doherty books I tracked down his Telamon series set during the reign of Alexander the Great. I’m nearly done with the first one (THE GODLESS MAN) and it’s a veritable bloodbath! There were 13 deaths in the first 77 pages and there have been five more (not including the six bodies buried in a cellar that were dispatched years before the action in the book) since then. I have a little less than 100 pages until the end. I am hoping the body count ceases. Two murderers were caught and summarily executed by decapitation in my reading last night. I had forgotten how Doherty can revel in bloodlust in his historical mysteries. Of course a war is on and most of the deaths are related to political intrigue and Macedonian law that requires a death for a death. But still! It’s almost as if a shower is required after a few chapters of reading. Three impossible crimes and one locked room as well so far. I’ll post a review at my blog by Sunday.


    • Thanks for the heads up – I’d thought the Alexander books were just historicals. Something else to put on the shopping list…

      Glad you’re enjoying the reviews. I’m trying to space them out a bit, but inevitably there’s going to be a concentration of Paul Doherty’s work at some point.


  3. Doc, I hope you’re aware how these reviews have distracted me from my noble pursuit of the obscure and forgotten, and despite some mixed feelings on the overall plot of The Horus Killings I have a standing order for The Anubis Slayings! How do you justify your doctor moniker when your main objective is infecting us?! 😉

    By the way, the review’s up on my blog.


  4. Ah, isn’t mad science wonderful??? Once again, Doc, you’ve got me interested in Doherty’s stuff… which is a shame, as I planned to take a look at hardboiled authors for a few weeks on the blog… Choices, choices…


    • I myself am a bit concerned that my readers are going to get a bit cheesed off with the lack of variety over the coming months. I’m planning that, at worst, my reading will go Doherty, Queen, other and repeat. But I remind myself that the primary raison d’etre of the blog is to keep me reading – so if there are patches of Doherty, my apologies. It doesn’t help that my resolve for a bit of variety caused me to read a book that commits the cardinal sin of being tedious – it’s one of the Coming Soon books – but I won’t spoil which one.


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