It’s 1377 and Sir Ralph Whitton, the Constable of the Tower of London, has locked himself away in an isolated, guarded room in fear of his life. As you may well guess, this isn’t enough protection from the mysterious assassin who has apparently crossed the frozen moat and scaled the tower wall to slit his throat. While the threat seems to emanate from a crime in the past, it seems that someone inside the Tower must be involved as well. But the assassin’s task is far from over as there is more than one person who carries a guilty secret.
Sir John Cranston, Coroner of London, and Brother Athelstan, his scribe investigate the mysterious goings on. But they both have their own concerns – Athelstan’s church of St Erconwald’s is being plagued by grave-robbers and Cranston’s wife is acting very strangely. Can all the mysteries be resolved before the body count escalates?
As with the opening entry in the series, The Nightingale Gallery, this is a proper mystery – arguably Golden Age in its construction. A finite set of suspects, cryptic messages, mysterious deaths and a perfectly reasonable explanation as to what happened. It also benefits, unlike the early Hugh Corbett books, of not being tied into an historical event. I’m pretty sure the plot is 100% made-up and that extra freedom in creating the set-up shows. And, like the preceding book in the series, it plays fair. Ish.
To be honest, you’d have to possess a photographic memory to spot the clue that gives the killer away – it’s one of those things where on page 50, Mr X mentions once that he had a six foot tall plum tree in his garden and then a hundred pages later Mr Y reminds Poirot that plum trees never exceed five feet. That is to say, the guilty statement cannot be recognised as such until some later information is given. Not my favourite kind of clue, to be honest, as it always seems a bit like cheating. I think Doherty realises this, as he tries to play fair by having Athelstan muse on “Didn’t someone mention plum trees earlier?” so if you’re inclined to flick back into the book, you can find the guilty statement.
On the other hand, given that one of the murders has an impossibility attached – a bell is rung but the surrounding snow is untouched – you can also spot the murderer if you can work out how that was done, along with the other clever little tricks.
But… this is a fantastic book. It kept me completely engrossed from beginning to end, no matter which part of the plot was being focussed on. Doherty does an excellent job of developing the lead characters – in particular Cranston, who could easily come across as a drunken boor, but I found myself feeling sorry for him. Yes, I guessed the killer correctly, but only figured out part of the mystery. Even more so than The Nightingale Gallery, this is highly recommended.